The wisdom my 77-year-old father has passed on to me came more through osmosis than lectures. Pinning down a dad's influence to one true thing is like saying that the final inning is all that matters in a baseball game—when in reality, it's every play up until then that has gotten the team to where it is. And my dad has been there since the first pitch. From making "the best pancakes you kids have ever eaten" on Saturday mornings, to assuring tearful teenagers studying for finals that all they needed was a good night's sleep and everything would be better in the morning, my dad's dogged optimism shines through. It is a big part of the reason I recovered after a pelvis-smashing accident, when I was run over by a truck: My father assumed that I'd be jogging with him again.
He would also be the first to note that a grand slam by the last batter in a two-run game can change everything. In that he's a realist. But the thing about Dad is that he believes he is the guy who will hit that ball out of the park in the clutch play. Even though his first great-grandchild was born a year and a half ago, he's still that kid on the bench saying, "Put me in, Coach."
Old age hasn't slowed him, mainly because he doesn't think almost-80 is old. I should have taken a photo of my dad swimming in the lake in front of our cabin in Alaska last summer to show you what he looks like. He is strong, bald and about 5'10", 150 pounds, with a long French nose, blue eyes and a great smile. He had come for a visit and was training for a charity swim across the Hudson River in New York, where he lives. He wore his custom-fitted wetsuit (it zips up the back, so we had to help him into it), but he still got so cold that when I hauled him, leaky goggles were all fogged up and I feared he'd die of hypothermia. We warmed him by stoking the woodstove and parking him, wrapped in a sleeping bag, as close to the open oven door as we could without cooking his legs.
"Oh, come on, it wasn't that bad," he'll say, when he reads this. "I was fine." Which he was. He always is. He did complete the Hudson swim a month later in New York, but told me over the phone that next time he'll make sure his wetsuit fits correctly (in haste, he pulled it on backward) and buy new goggles. (They filled up with water and he bumped into Pete Seeger's moored sailboat—the folk singer is the race's organizer.)
If you ask my father whether or not his life has been hard, he will say he is a lucky guy. Not in a Hollywood way—he means the kind of happiness that comes from sharing a well-cooked family meal, taking a good long run or growing a perfect tomato. Did I mention that he used to run marathons before his knee replacement surgery? He's the one who convinced me I could do it, too. "Anyone can run a marathon," he said, "as long as you put in your time training."
My father was born in 1933. His London childhood took a turn at the beginning of World War II: His father enlisted in the French Army and was captured by the Germans and spent the war in a prison camp. My dad and his mother and sister were shipped off to New Jersey to live with relatives. His mother suffered from depression, and Dad went to boarding school in New England from the sixth grade on.
Yet in all Dad's dinner table stories, and there have been many, he turned them into great stories.
These days the favorite saying of the family patriarch his grandchildren have dubbed Papa Bob is "And so it goes," from the writer Kurt Vonnegut. He repeats it often, especially when he has suffered a setback—anything from spraining an ankle skiing to facing my mother's death. During her illness (she had leukemia) he did his best to cheer her up. My sister, who lives next door to Dad, sometimes complained that he was in denial.
What good would it have done anyone if my father had embraced the sorrow of losing his wife of 49 years just as he was thinking about retiring to spend more time with her? Sometimes wishing days are happy can make them so. As much as it drove his daughters crazy, I'm sure my mother's last months were better because my father was planning a family vacation with all the grandkids to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
And honestly? He knew what was happening and chose to face it without undue sadness or fear. When I was 10, a neighbor was hit by a delivery truck and killed while riding her bicycle to play at the school ballfields. A few weeks after that funeral, Dad and I played catch in the backyard. "Two hands, keep your eye on the ball," he coached as we tossed it back and forth over the clothesline. (I've been following that advice all my life. A woman could do worse than keep her eye on the ball of what matters in life and hold on to it tightly, with two hands.) Anyway, I asked him why that awful truck had killed my friend. It was so unfair. Dad said, "Life's not fair." He didn't say it with any bitterness at all. He said it like Satchel Paige said, "You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out." Even an optimist like my dad understands that some things don't turn out right. The difference is, he knows it is your response to hard times that counts, and his is always to land on his feet, grateful to still be here, with a story to tell.
After a family dinner the other night, Papa Bob regaled us all with embellished versions of his recent and first-ever skydiving adventure. He said he was dizzy from the altitude-"12,000 feet!"—but the instructor sort of nudged him out of the plane. "Sixty-five seconds of free falling," he said. "I loved it. I should have been a paratrooper." Then he said, "I didn't even dent this new titanium knee."
He loves getting cards in the mail, and usually I'm late, so instead I call him on Father's Day. But this year I've decided to be early for once. Before he takes another skydive or a frigid lake swim, I want to let him know how much he means to me. Dad, thank you—for all of it. For playing catch in the backyard, the stories, the homegrown tomatoes, the running shoes, college, the first-aid kits (he likes us to be prepared for his visits) and mostly for your enduring faith that everything will be OK. It is, because you are my dad.