I lost my father this week. Thanks to hospice care, I was able to hold his hand, stroke his forehead and tell him good-bye. Next week, the family will gather to celebrate his life. He was 4 days shy of his 88th birthday.
I have learned that death is not the opposite of life; rather it is an integral part of life. Without the certain knowledge of an ending to our time in the physical body, the search for freedom and joy in which we are all engaged would be meaningless. My father lived a life which brought joy to many people, and as his eldest of four, at times, brought frustration, heartache, and embarrassment to me. He was eccentric, creative, strict, volatile, generous, and very much a man, myth, and legend in his time. It’s difficult to separate the memories of enchanting adventures and heartfelt love from the memories of his guarded curiosity towards a daughter who was at times headstrong, willful, stubborn, and politically opposite from him. Oh, what arguments we had. Oh, what crazy adventures we shared.
I was in my middle ages when I learned that happiness isn’t getting what one wants, but accepting what one has. I learned to take my Dad for what he was, strengths and weaknesses. I learned to coexist with him on the family vacations and to “roll with the punches” of his growing eccentricity. I taught my children to treasure and enjoy their time with him, and to “question their grandfather” when what he said didn’t sit right with them. Respect and love combined with sensibility and empathy served us well as family cornerstones with Papa.
In my younger years, Dad and I would ride bikes from our home (which he designed and built) in Brentwood to the Santa Monica Pier. I squealed with joy as we rode the rollercoaster and other rides together. We took long walks on the beach in Laguna with our poodle, Sam, in tow. My Dad loved to play volleyball and taught my brother and I the art of the game. My brother was hooked, and often used Dad as his partner, despite their disagreements and shuffle for alpha dog status. I took to sailing and bodysurfing with Dad. Once, we sailed our Hobbie Cat two-miles to the public beach, where Dad instructed my friends, and I to jump off the boat and swim to shore carrying a jumbo plastic trash bag filled with our dry clothes, purses, and beach towels.
Complications arose when as a teenager I started to take a different world view than his. Like many children, I wanted to please my Dad, but I also wanted independent thought. He was concerned that my car would break down (pre-cell phone) and I would fall prey to the dangers of a lonesome highway. He had me compile a “disguise kit” which would make me look like a man, and that kit stayed in my trunk until my mid-twenties when I used it in response to a flat tire on a deserted canyon road. It included a sign which read, “Please call Automobile Club” which I placed in my window, and remembered to never roll down for ANYONE. Sure enough, his plan worked. In case of teenage-driver accidents, he had my first car installed with a rollbar system inside it. Friends had to “climb through the cage” to sit down. I was embarrassed, mortified, amused and safe.
My Dad was a proponent of home remedies when any of us got sick. Having been raised as a Christian Scientist, he didn’t trust most doctors. This meant I got my throat swabbed out with boric acid when it was sore, salt water was rinsed in my nose when allergy season rolled around, and baking soda was used as toothpaste. We had chores at home, which included weekend “army-like inspections” to check if we had well-folded hospital corners on our beds, clean fingernails, and washed hair. My rebellious pre-teen use of black nail polish and long knotty hair marked the beginning of the end of our army ritual. As an adult, I discovered the joys of cream rinse, allergy and acne medications, and even eyeglasses.
My husband became my Dad’s best friend. They shared a love of sports, real estate, and well, me. My father became my husband’s mentor, then business partner, then investor, and eventually relied on him to plan his taxes, his healthcare and his final days. We traveled to Europe once with my parents and set a firm boundary before the trip. We were to travel as four friends, as equals, not parents, daughter, and son-in-law. This meant that decisions on the itinerary, daily activities, and social time would be decided by discussion and mutual agreement. That trip was full of laughter and light and was my most treasured vacation with my parents.
Upon his death, my father surprised us one last time by leaving behind a dictated autobiography of his life. In it, he explains that his father, George Edward Miller, was a nineteen-year-old when, as a Roughrider, he became a deserter in the 10-week Spanish/American War. He, therefore, changed his name to avoid captivity. (No wonder my ancestry family tree was so difficult!) My father’s time in the army was spent in Japan, after WWII, and through a series of clever maneuvers, he was able to live off-base and come and go as he pleased. He had a pilot’s license (and several crashes under his belt), was fraternity social chairman in college at UCLA, was an attorney, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist of individuals rather than charitable agencies. Donations frequently came with conditions, and rules for “how to better oneself.” His stories all have an element of him trudging off on his own, forging a new path, and doing things his own way. He was one of a kind.
I’ve learned a lot from my Dad. Besides the fatherly instructions on sailing, kite flying, and go-cart making, I learned that it’s okay to be yourself, with obvious strengths and weaknesses. I learned that life comes with ups and downs, and survivors learn to adapt to the ebb and flow. I learned that picking the right mate is of prime importance for a life of joy. My parents had been married for sixty years when he passed. Thanks for the lessons, Dad. I’m passing on your words of wisdom, choosing my own journey, and learning to flow with the tide. Catch a wave.