An Overdue 'Thank You' To My Dad

I stepped from my father's red Ford Probe outside the train station. Turning around to wave, I saw him tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he sang to the radio. He wore his plaid wool, made-in-Ireland hat with the button on top, his favorite style. The hat almost matched his shirt, which did not quite coordinate with his four-leaf-clover-patterned tie or the spring plaid pants he wore on this frigid November morning.

As he drove away, a rusted pickup roared into the lot, coming within inches of hitting him. The large and unhappy driver leaned out his window and began to yell. Though my father had the right of way, he politely waved to the man and smiled, unfazed by the indignant stream of profanities directed at him.

How one maintains a sense of peace, dignity and humor after having raised six children had only recently begun to baffle me. He had been driving me to the train station every morning since I had graduated from college and started work in Boston six months before. And though I had lived with him for 18 years, it wasn't until these daily commutes that I began to know him.

I learned of his first job, shoveling maggot-infested garbage from the back of a supermarket in Queens, N.Y.; that his favorite author is Graham Greene; that his hero as a child was Willie Mays. Everyday I heard a different story.

A new picture started to form, contrary to the one I had held growing up in a strict Roman Catholic household in a New England town in the 1980s. My high school was typical of schools in well-off communities: cliques of girls wearing their anorexia and bulimia on their sleeves; boys driving drunk; girls snorting cocaine at parties held while Mom and Dad were away.

Back then, I begrudged my parents every rigid rule I thought was rooted in their oppressive Catholicism. It was not until I began teaching high school that I saw what my father faced with the onset of each child's adolescence. In us, he confronted anorexia, teenage drinking, trips to the police station at 3 a.m., premarital sex, violent outbursts of hormones, rage at the world and a rejection of his faith.

Of course I do remember nights when his temper snapped. Perhaps I had been caught in a lie, perhaps I had spent four hours on the phone when I had been grounded from using it. Whatever my transgression was, I sat through the bulging-neck-vein tirade in shame, staring at a scratch on the floor.

Yet I also remember when I was a little girl, he'd come home around my bedtime, wipe the work from his eyes and sing "Edelweiss" before I fell asleep. Though as a teenager, I never would have admitted it, I often wished I wasn't too old for these lullabies.

As a doctor, my dad has always worked long hours, on call at night and on weekends. Yet he attended every one of my track and cross-country meets in high school. At the state track meet during my junior year of high school, I was 12th among 12 runners. The stands were packed with people, all shouting for their non-last-place daughters. I could barely pull my feet off the ground, when the roar of voices suddenly parted for my father's all-too-familiar song that boomed into the ears of every parent and peer at the track that day: "Katie-Katie-boe-batie, Nanna-fanna-foe-fatie, Fee-fie-foe-fatie, goooo, Katie!" I immediately spotted him in the crowd, clapping his hands and dancing some sort of jig. Despite my misery I could not help but smile.

As a teenager, I would arrogantly argue against any belief or idea that I hadn't thought of myself. In response, my father would state his own point of view, often mentioning a book that had influenced him. A few days later I would find the book lying on my pillow, like Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory."

Last Father's Day, our family met at my parents' house in New Hampshire. The porch outside the cabin hung over the lawn below, and Lake Winnepasaukee filled the space between the mountains. My father's first grandchild, 2 years old, was dancing with my sister to "Mack the Knife." My other sister manned the grill, and the rest of us played gin rummy. My father stood holding a beer in his right hand and leaning his elbow on the railing as he looked out at the water, then down at his family. As he turned his head I saw a small smile turn his gray mustache upward before he put down his beer and walked to the water with his book.

Nowadays the media seem to either blame fathers for their children's problems or warn them of catastrophe if they make a wrong move. Despite this, I hope that we will recognize the gifts our fathers have given us. My thank-you to my own father is long overdue.