Wisdom

   My dad in 1949, Atlantic City, NJ

My dad in 1949, Atlantic City, NJ

In the shadow of Father’s Day—yesterday—I am thinking about my father, whom I lost seven years ago. Since then, I’ve gotten to enjoy Father’s Day without any worry of meeting a son’s Father’s Day duty or the pressure of buying a Father’s Day gift. But the day has never passed without my thinking about—and missing—my dad. Understandably, he has grown wiser in my eyes over time because now I am wrestling with that role: trying to infuse my days of fatherhood with some kind of wisdom.

One word of wisdom that came from him—probably his wisest advice—did not come in the form of an old expression or an aphorism or quote from a book or play…he was full of those and always had them at-the-ready. This time, in the natural flow of life, he listened to something I’d said, understood it in a bigger context than I could, and instantly directed me into a thought that I should have had on my own, into a thought that I’d never abandon thereafter, into a thought that ended up—I think—changing my life.

On Father’s Day in 2006, my family—wife, son, and daughter—took a trip to Florida. We stayed in a beautiful resort hotel overlooking the Gulf. We arrived in a gloomy overcast Florida after a long morning of travel, and my wife and son collapsed on the bed for a nap. I sneaked onto the balcony to call my dad—a son’s Father’s Day duty. My daughter begged me to go swimming in the “waterfall pool,” a great attraction for any 12-year-old, but I bemoaned the weather and my travel fatigue and my need to make the phone call. “We’re here all week,” I excused myself. “We’ll go tomorrow.”

I chatted with my dad about the trip and our plans for the week and about his plans for Father’s Day…my siblings would be visiting him shortly. In the background of our conversation, he could hear my daughter pestering me about the pool. He paused in the conversation and said, “Son,” so I paused to listen. “If your daughter wants you to go swimming with her…go swimming with her.” It was a pronouncement of great certainty and clarity. I was stuck there in the middle: between a daughter and a father where I was the father and the son…he fully appreciated the moment and made it clear for me. I wished right then that he could come swimming with us.

Needless to say, we went swimming in the waterfall pool within the hour, despite the slight sprinkle of warm rain, despite being the only people at the pool or in the pool. I remember standing waist-deep in the pool, washed by the waterfall, holding my daughter’s hand, wondering how many sons and daughters were watching us from the hotel windows wishing their old man had taken them swimming.

In his poem, “East Coker,” T. S. Eliot says, “Do not let me hear/Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly.” My dad’s wisdom on that Father’s Day was his folly and he made it mine…sending us swimming in the rain because he could, because we could.