How I Learned Who I Am From My Dad

Norman J. White, 1935-2024

My father would have been profoundly irritated by the phone call I received telling me he was dead.

He would’ve been at peace with the dead part. He was 88; he had a good run. He’d been struggling with congestive heart failure for a few years. His world gradually shrunk to the few paces he could manage from bed to chair to kitchen, and he was very tired. He knew the end was near. We planned for it together, and he was at peace with it. He would go on his own terms, as one should. When we talked about current events he remarked he was glad he didn’t have to stick around to see the current apocalypse play out.

But the call would have irked him. Dad wanted you to get to the point. “Just answer the question” he said innumerable times to me or my mother, perhaps throwing in a rude adjective if circumstances warranted, fixing his eye upon me as I temporized and danced around his question. Where did that big black bumper-shaped mark on the garage door come from? Well, Dad, first you have to appreciate the context. This was excellent training for speaking with judges.

Patience is not a recognized virtue of the men of my line. Dad’s patience would have been sorely tried by the young medical assistant who called me at work from his retirement community one evening a couple of weeks ago. As soon as he identified himself I knew there were only a few possibilities. My Dad might be dead. He might have fallen again or had another heart attack and they might be taking him to the hospital, a grim scenario Dad dreaded, carrying the likelihood of suffering, indignity, loss of autonomy, and decline and death on the hospital’s terms. Or, I thought, it was entirely possible that Dad was being thrown out of another retirement community. Congestive heart failure was inadequate to stop him from launching another agnostic’s schism amongst religious octogenarians if that is what struck him as righteous, proper, and entertaining.

A few short words, direct but kind, would resolve my suspense. But the young medtech didn’t have the heart to say them. He explained that they had gone into Dad’s apartment to check on him, and launched into a fairly detailed explanation of the technological system that allowed the management to determine if any doors had been opened recently, including both the specific methodology and the philosophical underpinnings of the program, vis-a-vis expectations of privacy and whatnot. This took a couple of minutes. Then he said they had encountered my Dad, though he was not immediately clear about Dad’s condition upon being encountered. He did not note whether Dad had any comments upon being found, as I would expect him to. He explained that they set out to determine how Dad was, and the methods they used.

Oh my God, I thought. I am being cat-up-on-the-roofed.

He mentioned there was some blood, which frankly was still consistent with any of the three possible scenarios I mentioned, and that the police were present, though not why. Surely email flame wars about why one must wear a jacket in the dining room on Sundays are outside the ambit of the Pasadena Police Department.

At this point I began to suspect that this call was not within the scope of the young man’s normal job duties. Compassion, not clarity, was his calling.

He mentioned they found Dad in the bathroom. “Like Elvis,” I said, my voice cracking, almost but not quite losing my shit altogether.

“I’m not sure,” said the young man, sounding nonplussed. Like many health care workers he was an immigrant and though his English was impeccable he may not have been familiar with The King. He returned to the familiar safety of retirement home protocol and began to discuss the process for evaluating a resident’s condition. Three or four minutes into the call he still had not said explicitly whether Dad was dead, or incapacitated, or embarked again on a campaign of rebuking society’s intrusive presumption of a common set of religious beliefs as a prerequisite for participating in public life.

I gently asked to speak with one of the police officers, and the young man handed the phone to the officer with palpable relief, and the officer immediately said “I’m sorry for your loss,” and that was that. Say this for cops: they will rip the band-aid right off for you.

As I’ve gotten older, figuring out my parents has been central to figuring myself out. Time has humanized them, transforming them from a child’s omniscient protectors to an adult’s fallible and relatable companions.

This began with my Mom, whose illness and death in 1998 stripped the hagiography from her. I began to understand then that she was just another person along for the ride, making things up as she went as often as not, her air of certainty an accommodation to parenthood. That was comforting, not scary. If she could make her way, so could I. Though the process is not without its bumps. “WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK” I exclaimed suddenly this weekend as I read one of her letters to my dad from college in 1960, which he carefully maintained in its original envelope. “I am writing this to you from class, in which, for the record, I am carrying a D,” said the woman who would later tell me that people who get a C+ quarter grade in French become ditch-diggers or drug dealers or possibly drug-dealing ditch-diggers. Seriously Mom?

That process — figuring out what it means to be human by figuring out your parents are human — was even more profound with Dad. He was somehow never complete without Mom, and in watching that I reevaluated what it meant to be a husband, and father, and friend, even one is an introvert and even a bit of a misanthrope. I rethought what it meant to be private and independent but to love and be loved as he reconciled his fundamental taste for solitude with his love for his grandchildren. As I struggled with depression and anxiety he opened up to me about his experiences with them, thoughtfully passed through DNA from his father. The difference, I realized, is that he did it without therapy or meds or any social sanction to talk about it to anyone. Jesus, the strength of the man.

I also figured out a great deal about being a lawyer. My youth was spent with him editing drafts of essays, in occasionally angry disputes over the placement of this comma or that phrase, learning to care about words and their power. If I can write, or speak, it’s because of him. But later he taught me more important things. Having spent my college years thinking my parents were hopelessly regressive like all Olds, I learned as an adult that for many years he had been drafting effective estate plans for same-sex couples protecting their rights in the case of medical emergencies or death. He didn’t do it because it was progressive. He was neither loud nor quiet about it. There was neither fanfare nor deliberate lack of fanfare. He just did it. He did it decades before anyone talked about legalizing same-sex marriage. He did it because a lawyer’s purpose is to serve the client and work towards the client’s goals. I thought about that when I went to court the morning after he died, because the client needed me and that’s what Dad would expect of me. I was a little brittle, to be frank.

Since my Mom died — many years now, half my life — I’ve struggled to balance respecting Dad’s independence and privacy and making sure that we were there for him, welcoming to him, including him. It was sometimes frustrating, and it caused occasional hard feelings. But by grace that eased in the last couple of years as his condition worsened. I visited every week, particularly as he could no longer leave his apartment. He let me help him more than he wanted and I tolerated his stubbornness more than I wanted. The natural friction between two very independent people smoothed. We understood each other. I cherish those hours, and our rambling conversations, as I cherish the time I spent with my Mom when she was ill.

There’s never enough time to ask what you’d like to ask. I read his letters to his mother from Korea in 1959, my Mom’s letters to him before they married trying to reconcile his stubborn agnosticism and her devout Catholicism. They figured it out; he read the newspaper in the car outside many a church when we travelled on vacation, and I never heard him question faith until I was an adult, though I could feel him not questioning it. I wish I could ask questions now about those letters, about who is standing beside him in some of these pictures, about where he found a particular piece of art. I sift through his possessions. I found a very old compass, the brass shiny from rubbing fingers, compact and light and perfect for the wilderness adventures he hated. Did his father give it to him? Does he keep it to remember, even though he hated the wilderness and they had a very fraught relationship that was never repaired? No one alive can say. The answers are left to whatever end awaits us all.

I am fiercely proud to be his son. I will not see his like again.

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