This I Believe

Thomas - Hilsborough, North Carolina
Entered on November 2, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe my father was a great man. Perhaps he didn’t carry greatness like a champion athlete or a renowned statesman, but his character and the conduct of his life reveal none of the weaknesses that so often bedevil those on whom popular culture bestows the fleeting label of greatness.

Although I’m sure I expressed it inadequately, I can’t recall a time when I didn’t carry an appreciation for my father. Where some of my friends’ fathers were angry or impatient, mine was unfailingly kind and demonstrated seemingly endless patience. Where some of my friends’ fathers were seldom around, my father was there, day after day, guiding and teaching.

Last year, as I sat by my father’s bed in a hospital where he had stayed for seven weeks, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of the futility of life. If illness and death could overtake my father, the one true living giant of my life, it seemed impossible to anticipate anything but decay and loss.

That this man, struggling to breathe and hide his pain, could be the one who accomplished the amazing feats of strength a child attributes to his father seemed improbable. This couldn’t be the man whose index finger once completely filled my grip, who walked for miles carrying me on his shoulders. My connection to that past life was there, piercing me each time he squeezed my hand and smiled at me, but it seemed the life of another boy, long ago, who I’d seen and of whom I carried memories but could no longer recognize as myself.

Long nights at the hospital gave me rare unhurried time to reflect on our intertwined lives. My father spent most of his life fulfilling his responsibilities, first to his mother and father, then to my mother and myself. He stuck with the same job for 30 years, even though by his own admission the last few years were filled with boredom and frustration. As a young man just entering the working world as my father was preparing to leave it, I resolved to be different, to follow my heart and find the perfect marriage of joy and work. Now, however, ten years past graduate school and with three small children, I find myself doing much what my father did—going to work each day more to provide for my family than out of love for the work itself.

There are good parallels between our lives, too, and these are far more important than those concerning work. I am married to a woman who I love truly and deeply. I have beautiful children who I cherish. I have a few close friends with whom I’ve build strong trust, mutual reliance, and deep affection.

These similarities underscore why I call my father a great man. His gifts of stability, confidence, and unwavering love did more for my life than any amount of money could have. The countless hours spent working together, fishing, or playing catch taught me what a father can and should be. Being a great father, he taught me how to do the same, preparing me to pass this sacred and critical knowledge on to my children.

I will spend the rest of my life living up to my father’s examples of selflessness, courage, optimism, and persistence. Like my father, I have not amassed a fortune. But every day, for the rest of my life, every act of kindness, every moment of time or care or concern I devote to another person will be my monument to him. And if I build my monument well, my children will be able to think of my life and my legacy to them with the same sense of gratitude and pride that I feel for my father.