When I was a little girl learning to play the piano, I practiced and Dad listened. “I think you got a little fast that time,” he would often say. He was probably right. My musical goal of playing pieces as fast as my fingers were able, faster each day, ruined many a poignant melody. Yet, even so, my father’s words stung. I wanted him to mind his own business. I often closed the keyboard and left in a ten-year-old huff. I did not understand then that my father was showing me he was listening—carefully. Tone-deaf, he knew little about expression or melody, but tempo was something he could understand.
My impatience with his remarks was the beginning of growing away from my friend and encourager—away from the hands that lifted me onto a kitchen chair to break eggs into pancake batter; away from flying airplanes on string; away from raising tadpoles and setting free young frogs in streams; away from carving jack-o’-lanterns in the fall and planting their seeds in spring to grow globes half my size. Dad was behind me in these exploits—and always. Had I known as a teenager when closing my bedroom door to paint on gruesome amounts of makeup that I was also closing the door on Dad; had I recognized as a young woman, lonely in a new apartment but refusing to call home, that I was forgetting to let a father know I still needed him; had I foreseen as a young mother, wanting to raise children in my own way, that I could only have benefited from the sage advice of the retired grandfather; had I realized as I grew up and away that the special closeness of a little girl and her sheltering father cannot return, then would I have slowed down a little?
If Dad was hurt by his children growing up, he never showed it. Like his advice regarding my piano playing, he kept his tempo steady. When the doctors told him how much time he had left, he asked my mother, “What will we tell the girls?” In his question was the secret of his strength: in thinking of his family first, he could put aside his own hurts, angers, and fears.
I believe that the people we love are only on loan to us, and a parent’s example is a thread of immortality sewn through generations.
Sometimes, at the end of a day spent wiping noses and bottoms, pouring milk and mopping spills, and picking up Legos and Barbies and more Legos—sometimes on those evenings when I look for a quiet chair and the night’s newspaper but find instead three young bodies, sticky and bickering and clamoring for a place on my lap—it’s at these times when I remember Dad.
I accept the cycle of life and my part in it—that my children will one day leave me as I left my father, and I take comfort in applying and passing on my father’s example. I make room for my children and hold them close.