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Ships Unmoored

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Dad lately. September is the anniversary of his death, so he’s on my mind more than usual during the fall months. While he was fighting cancer, he said to me: sometimes, ships unmoored come safely home.

When my Dad was alive, I could have asked for the reference directly (although I didn’t at the time). So I hit the Internet looking for the source. I thought it might be Shakespeare, but I couldn’t find it. I actually have the vague memory of looking up the quote some time ago and finding it and realizing that the quote wasn’t quite right and thinking, how beautiful: “ships unmoored.” Or maybe that was now, I love the idea, the phrase, ships unmoored.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to come safely home. How you can walk up your 12 steps and turn the lock with your key to that satisfying click, get the somewhat stale whiff when you walk inside to closed windows as your eyes go first to the couch to check and see if the cushion is turned in the way that hides the still mysterious medium-sized green stain (what was that?!). Or if safely home is really about that magical home in the sky home, where you don’t even believe it exactly but you’re hoping in some way when you die, whether you actually go home or you just feel like you go home, something (God, brain, death hormones, something) gives us the feeling that we are on our way safely home, going home, or just home.

I guess if my Dad had meant the latter, he could have said: ships unmoored always come safely home. But then he wouldn’t have been the same guy who got a good laugh out of his idea for a bumper sticker: Visualize my ass.

Near the end of his life he told me, he wasn’t scared to die, just curious. I don’t think he was worried about coming “safely home” although he did want to come home to die and he did. He also wanted to see the place where he’d be buried before he died. I’ll never forget the drive home from the hospital, maybe a week or so before he actually died, which included a drive by the lush, green graveyard. My father, leaning way back in the seat of the car, painfully sat up, looked out the window and nodded.

A few years after my father died, I wrote something about him for a class taught by the indomitable Daphne Merkin. The essay, she thought, was overly sentimental and over filled with positive adjectives (for starters) but, she said, the piece had really given her pause, and made her wonder what her own life would have been like if she’d had a father like my Dad.

Needless-to-say, I still haven’t trimmed much sentimentality out of my writing when the topic is my father. It’s probably not going to happen, so let me end, unashamedly.

My father taught a lot of classic Greek texts including The Odyssey. When I typed  “sometimes ships unmoored” into Google, it linked me to The Odyssey, book 13:

Then for Odysseus they spread a rug and a linen sheet on the deck of the hollow ship at the stern, that he might sleep soundly; and he too went aboard, and laid him down in silence. Then they sat down on the benches, each in order, and loosed the hawser from the pierced stone. And as soon as they leaned back, and tossed the brine with their oarblades, sweet sleep fell upon his eyelids, an unawakening sleep, most sweet, and most like to death. And as on a plain four yoked stallions spring forward all together beneath the strokes of the lash, and leaping on high swiftly accomplish their way, even so the stern of that ship leapt on high, and in her wake the dark wave of the loud-sounding sea foamed mightily, and she sped safely and surely on her way; not even the circling hawk, the swiftest of winged things, could have kept pace with her. Thus she sped on swiftly and clove the waves of the sea, bearing a man the peer of the gods in counsel, one who in time past had suffered many griefs at heart in passing through wars of men and the grievous waves; but now he slept in peace, forgetful of all that he had suffered.

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stories worth repeating, thoughts, Uncategorized

the thing that made all the difference…

Reading Erica Goldson’s impressive valedictorian speech, which included a scathing and truthful critique of the state of this country’s education system, got me to thinking about how there’s not usually a lot of follow up with these people. We get to hear the, let’s go get ’em speech, but unless they hit the big time, we don’t get to hear what all those valedictorians think after they been around a while. That could be interesting … or not.

My father was the valedictorian of his high school. I never heard or read what he said in that speech, although he did say later that if he had it to do over again, he would have said something different. He was also the valedictorian of his University (okay, top 1%, they didn’t have only one valedictorian). That time he didn’t give a speech but I’d like to share what he wrote about his life for the alumni book 25 years later.

“The thing that made all the difference was doing what I knew was right even though I knew it meant losing my job, which it did. Everything fell into place after that.”

Dr. Donald Finkel

1965 Twenty-Fifth Reunion Class Book and Directory, Yale University

Stories worth considering, thoughts, Uncategorized

Words Matter (In Memory)

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September 16, 2009 is the 10 year anniversary of my father’s death.  He did not live to see the 21st century; he did not know that the twin towers would be attacked and that they would fall.  He would not have necessarily welcomed the digital age.  I guess there are many things that each of us will never know.

If you asked my father what he did, he liked to say that he taught college. He was not a professor, he was, Don, a teacher.  Not always perfect, but always learning, always embracing his path and encouraging me to skip along mine.  I think no more so than, with fearlessness and pure heart, he faced his own death. “Are you afraid,” I asked.  “No,” he said, “just curious.”

I was with him 2 hours before he actually died.  They tell you to say goodbye, to say that it’s okay to die and that you’ll be okay when they pass.  All these things to make it easier for the person to “let go.”  Cancer, being the aggressive bastard that it is, wasn’t likely going to be influenced by what I said or didn’t say, but I said everything anyway.

Fourteen months earlier, I had arrived at his hospital bed.  “Have I given you enough?” he asked.

Many words have been written and spoken about my father.  At the funeral, students I didn’t know approached me: “You were the apple of his eye,” they said.  And six months later, students running the ticket booth at the local movie theater looked at me strangely, “We know who you are, and we loved your father.”

There was one piece (Craig Carlson Eulogy) written about him that I have always especially loved. Penned by Craig Carlson, poet, teacher and long-time colleague of my father’s, the essay had story, memory, surprise, reveal.  It was an excavation of history, with them sitting in the backyard of the old house with the bees.  As with any good story, if perfectly captures who my father was and it revealed extra words and thoughts he had, which, like the fragments of ancient pottery, are precious beyond explanation.

A few years later Craig drowned, and there was a story told about it.  He and his teenage son had been swimming, maybe out a little too far and then the current had taken them out further.  They knew they were in trouble.  Craig was tired, and told his son to swim back without him.  His son didn’t want to leave him.  “Get help,” said Craig.  And so the son swam back and was saved.

Not, save yourself.  Not, just go on without me.  Get help.  A task.  A reason to survive. A charge to save the life of someone else. It’s Muhammad Ali winning Rumble in the Jungle–fighting not just for himself but for his community.  Something greater than oneself.

Get help.

For 10 years I have missed my father, but I have cherished the legacy he left behind and I am deeply grateful to Craig, a poet to the end, for his words.

***

Check out my father’s book: Teaching with your Mouth Shut.

Also, his as of yet unpublished, Out of the cave; steps to essay writing.