Friday, June 19, 2015

My Father's Daughter

Here’s a thought: if the sperm that created you had come in second in the race to the egg, you would be an entirely different person. Think about it. Among the million or so sperm vying for that egg, the one that contained the recipe for you won, and if any other tadpole had gained entry, you would not be who you are. Quite a gamble, procreation.

As Father’s Day approaches, we naturally think of our dads. Which got me thinking about the process of conception and the traits a father passes on to his children. Man, was I lucky.

First and foremost, there’s the brain. I was fortunate to have a very intelligent father, and he exploited his intelligence to achieve great things. He was born and raised in Mississippi, the son of a prominent architect. But when he was still a boy, his father left to start a new family, leaving him and his mother behind. So he dropped out of school and went to work.

Realizing the grim future in store for a Mississippi kid with a ninth grade education, he enlisted in the Navy when he was just sixteen. And once he left the south, he never looked back.

That young, uneducated sailor went on to travel every corner of the globe, complete a master’s in theology from Northwestern University, and achieve the rank of Captain. All of it through sheer force of will.

He is the reason I pushed on for a PhD. In fact, he’s the reason for much of what I’ve done in my life, for he represented the pinnacle of success, the example of what hard work and hard-headed determination can achieve.

But conception is like life; we must take the bad with the good.

Aside from determination, he also passed on some less-than-desirable traits. For instance, that same hard-headedness, which can border on stubborn; a deep and abiding love of gin; and above all else, a temper.

My father’s temper could go from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds; a trait which in my case has fortunately mellowed with time. Although my father was a chaplain and a man of God, he could swear like any seaworthy sailor. Politics, the economy, or criminal activity would set him off and he would launch into a tirade, cursing all of civilization, damning human weakness.

But he was also one of the funniest individuals I’ve ever known. He loved to laugh and my fondest memories are of sipping martinis and listening, enthralled, as his stories unwound. Like when his ship was torpedoed, plunging him and his crew into the dark depths of the Pacific. And how his commander had silenced him with, “SHUT UP SAILOR, WE’LL GET TO YOU!”

Dad was also a philosopher. His world view was an intriguing blend of religion, philosophy, and the hard life lessons of his youth. He had several famous sayings, such as, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” a creed he employed whenever he ordered Chinese takeout. Or his other motto, “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” which is ironic, considering all he achieved in his lifetime.

He spent forty-two years in the Navy and survived two wars – a feat no man can endure without being forever altered. But his cynicism was balanced by a love of laughter, a warmth of spirit, and a clever mind that never failed to see the humorous side of life.

My father is gone now. A slow-growing tumor bloomed deep within his frontal lobe, dimming and eventually snuffing out that most vibrant of personalities. I still see him in the mirror. I share his eyes, the shape of his face, and his strong, white teeth. But his most important traits reside within me, for he graced me with a curious mind, steely determination, and a will that has sustained me through every crisis in life – one of the hardest being his death. 

To all the fathers out there, I wish you a warm and wonderful Father's Day.