There are so many ways to tell a story. We just had an intimate celebration of my Dad’s life for those who knew him. It started with cocktail hour and then it was story time. I heard so many stories about my Dad that I had never heard. I loved hearing about his life as a boss, a friend, brother-in-law, Bumpa and of course as a father. In the words of Eben Alexander in his book, Proof of Heaven he writes, “A story–a true story–can heal as much as medicine can.”
So how was I going to talk about Dad in 10 minutes or less and really give a sense of who he was to me? I was thinking about the text, “Days With My Father” which started on line and is now a book, but that did not exactly capture what I was hoping to do as it only reflected the end of his father’s life. I wanted more than that. And then I thought back to the last time I wrote about my Dad, using Wallace Steven’s, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. I wrote up 13 Moments with Dad and took it to the service.
I only got through maybe half of them, but then as I went back to the piece I didn’t like it. I envisioned something different and then I remembered the book, The Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. If you have not read this book then it must go on your list to be read. I scoured my shelves and re-worked the piece again. I am thrilled with the possibilities and so I will share a few of them and they are rough. There are so many that have yet to be written, but this is where I am now and I am still struggling with each subtitle as well as how many to write. Yet another piece of writing that is never done, but is just done enough for now to make my point here on this blog, that writing and thinking takes time and that honoring where our students are in that moment is priceless.
And again, while I realize this is a very personal piece on an educational blog and even somewhat self-indulgent, I have come to realize that living a literate life is very personal and that we need more of these personal connections to allow us to see each other, face to face.
So here we go…
A Daughter’s Encyclopedia of Her Dad
A for Always
“You need to leave the hospital right now, ”Dad’s voice echoed, quiet yet firm. After 13 days of never leaving my leukemia-ridden 3 and a half year old Emma’s side, she was overdosed in one of her surgeries. My Dad was the first to arrive and he was the only one who told me to leave. And so for the first time I left. Dad drove me home to see Zachary and spend one night out of the hospital.
What I have come to realize after his death is that no matter what Dad had my back. I just knew that if I ever needed anything he would have been there and just knowing that keeps you from ever really needing anything at all…
“This too shall pass”, my Dad’s words of wisdom he shared with me when in the throes of Emma’s illness. And eventually it did.
B for Best Friend
My best friend, Krissy stopped by to say goodbye on her way to her new prep school hours away, Northfield, Mount Hermon. As we stood in the driveway sobbing together and lamenting our impending separation she said, “Why don’t you come too?”
And so I went and checked out the school, knowing that we did not have the money for me to go to private school, but interested to see where Dad had also gone when he was younger. (That was a story we all knew too well. How he hitchhiked there 3 times and begged them to accept him and yes, they finally did. “It changed my life,” he would say. ) Did I need my life to be changed?
He walked into my bedroom, pitch black and through the darkness he just said, “If you really want to go to Northfield, we will figure out a way to make it to happen.” And then he left the room.
I did not go. I didn’t need to go. I think I just needed to know I could go.
C for Call
I picked up the phone to hear Dad’s voice. “I haven’t seen you in a while.” And I would tell Dad what I had been up to and he would listen and respond. One day I was telling him the latest woes of parenting and he stopped me and said, “You have raised great kids.” Again I was left silent. The man of few words was speaking… and he was saying something from the heart. “No, I mean it. They are great kids. You have done a really good job with them.”
What he could not see were the tears running down my cheeks as I flipped the bacon and then Mom got on the phone. Per usual at that point he would make his exit and say with sarcastic contempt, “Well I will let you two talk for the next few hours” and he hung up.
And what he needs to know is that he too has raised 3 really great kids.
D for Dancing
I made my Dad do a Father Daughter dance at my wedding. My mother had often lamented at the lack of dancing and nights out on the town with my father. He resisted the idea of that dance, but just like one day when I came home from college and hugged my parents and forced my Dad to hug me back, I forced him to do that dance with me. Not only did he dance, but he even did it with a smile.
But you must know that dancing with my Dad was more like standing in the middle of a floor where there was music playing and making slight shuffles to the right and to the left. Rhythm was not really involved, but even standing there as he held me in dance position, right arm up left on my waist was enough. And Mom, I don’t think you missed much not making those nights out dancing with Dad!
E for Employee
As a new summer employee at my Dad’s newspaper, The New Hampshire Business Review, I was excited to finally be a bigger part of the family business. I envisioned learning the ropes of journalism and seeing what made a company tick. I was assigned to work for my sister under the term “data entry”. Day after day of entering information and categorizing it. God forbid I actually ask a question of my beloved “boss” as she would look at me in disgust and say, “I already told you how to do that!!” Never before had I felt like such a peon in a job. Even waitressing was easier than trying to fit into this very tight system that had been established so many years ago where I quickly realized that being a family member only meant there were higher expectations of you and no family bennies whatsoever. In fact, it began to seem like being family was more of a curse than a blessing…at least at the office!
One day while I was sitting in my Dad’s big black chair and spinning around like I used to when I was little I opened his top drawer to find a pen and instead I found a one and a half inch stack of checks. My gut sank as I looked to see that the check on top was made out to Don Madden. As I flipped through them all the same name appeared over and over and over again. A flipbook of Don Madden checks and the implications that he was paying everyone else made me gasp. His investment in this business ran deeper than I had ever realized.
I finished that summer and never complained again. It was my last time working at the paper.
F for Faces
Hey, do you see the face?” Dad would ask as he pointed at a picture, a painting or even out the window at a tree. Whereupon we would all look and sometimes we might see it and others we would have no idea what he was seeing. He “saw” things that others did not see be it in the visual, looking out the window or into the future political arena.
Since my Dad’s death I have started to “see” faces everywhere!! I am taking an intense course to become a yoga teacher and in that course we are studying anatomy and all through the lessons I see faces. Faces on ovaries, kidneys with eyes staring at me and then the profile of a young man peering out of the liver. Every time I see one I say hello to my Dad and am forever reminded that we must look, look and then look again with an open mind and you never know just what you might “see”.
H for Hugging
Hugging. From that day forward every time I saw my Dad I hugged him. Over time he came to expect it and dare I even say that he might have even leaned in first once or twice himself! He was an interesting hugger, more of a leaner really, but still I didn’t care. Some say huggers are buggers, but eventually they give in and realize that hugging isn’t so bad after all.
I for Indulgence
“Daddy, will you PLEASE do your Donald Duck voice?” we would plead for hours on end and usually the answer was no. To this day is amazes me how few times we actually heard it and it was something that tickled us pinker than pink as we would laugh and laugh. What was it that kept him from wanting to do it more? To indulge his kids just a few more times and yet if you think back, it made it all that much more incredible when he did it. “Less is more,” he would say if he was helping me with my writing. “Less is more”
L for Late
Driving home after curfew one night in the yellow bumblebee I devised a plan to pick up some speed down Page Road and then cut the engine and drift into the driveway with the lights off in hopes that I could “sneak” in and not be discovered. As I turned in, the car slowly moved towards the barn, activating the sensor bathing me in bright light. Damn, I thought as I began to open the car door and realized there was movement all around. As I looked closer I realized I had coasted into a sea of raccoons. Big raccoons, little raccoons, raccoons swarming the car and coming towards me. I slammed the door and began to scream, “Dad!!” “Dad!!” Of course he couldn’t hear me and so I layed on the horn. Eventually Dad appeared in his boxers and shooshed all the raccoons away, saying, “Get outta here ya saps!” As he was getting rid of them I made a dash for the house. He followed me in and said, “You’re late.”
M for Moving
“I am calling to check in with you because we looked at a house in New London and well, I just wanted to be sure that you were okay with that.” I paused in disbelief. Was my Dad actually calling to ask me about their life decision? The silence lingered and he said, “Are you there?” “Yes Dad, I am here.” “Well, you and your mother spend so much time together and well, I just wanted to know what you thought about us making this move.”
“Do what you need to do Dad, and I will be fine.” And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me that our relationship had shifted so dramatically over the years but that I hadn’t even realized it. The older he got the more he said and the more he said the more I listened. I am so glad they lived nearby for 10 years.
S for Swearing
Dad announced as we sat on the lime green carpet during a major heat wave in 1975 that we were going on a family vacation. Lisa, Jamie and I screamed and shouted with joy as visions of Disney rides and beaches and pools danced through our heads he said we needed to pack as we would be leaving at 4 in the morning just to get a good head start.
We woke at 4 filled with Christmas morning anticipation and settled ourselves into the blue paneled station wagon. Lisa and I settled into our makeshift bed in the very back complete with blankets and pillows and Jamie in his own bed in the middle seat with the cooler. Little did we know that we would never get out of the car except for the occasional bathroom break and over 14 days and 4,000 miles later having seen all of Newfoundland and even Labrador. Oh the stories from that trip!
It was the first time I ever heard Dad swear as he got back into the car at a random gas station as Mom was handing us snowballs and candy bars to keep us quiet and we were fighting over them and anything else from being in such a confined space for too long when Dad snapped and yelled, “All you kids do is fight, fart and swear!” I remember thinking…did Dad just say fart?
T for Tomasen
My name. Thank you Dad for making up the most incredible, bestest, most awesome name in the world just for me. Something about having my name always made me feel like I was different. (It also helped that Lisa was actually a tiny bit jealous of it too as I was jealous of most everything she had, especially that incredible cassette recorder she had in Weare, but I digress!) What I love most about my name are all of the stories it has generated. As a man of stories, and as a great storyteller I would imagine you might have thought, what kind of name would bring great stories?
W for Wondering
“I would like to come over, there seems to be something wrong with my computer.” He would arrive, laptop under his arm, and I would pour the coffee as he would begin to describe in detail just what was or was not happening with his laptop. We would sit together and I would map out the steps, write them down and he would thank me profusely for being so patient with him. “We always knew you would be a teacher,” he said. “The hours you would spend in your room with all of those imaginary students, we just knew you would be a teacher.
During one of those visits he told me that he was ok with dying. He talked and talked and told me that I was the “listener”. I didn’t know what to do with that information today as I wonder…years later…if he would have said the same thing on the day he died.
So, as you can see there are many pieces missing, many in process, and just a sampling of an attempt to remember the stories of my Dad.
Jeff Wilhelm in his book on narratives tells a story about a decision-making process one of his kids was making and asked this question, “Which decision will make the best stories?”
My Dad’s life in stories was what he would have hoped for. Of that I am sure. What I am not sure about is how many stories are still out there, untold, about my Dad and about all of those students we work with.
We are only as good as our stories and honoring those should be a part of our daily work with students, whether reading them, writing them and absolutely always celebrating them. Period. I mean, in the end, what else is there really?