As a kid, I felt protective of my dad. It seemed to me he tried to share only what was relevant but would just get caught up in too many details. When adolescence kicked in, I wasn’t as charitable. It would often start with a homework question I wanted his help with, American or European history for example. He knew both subjects well. I remembered one occasion when, a few minutes into discussing my assignment, he referred to a paper he’d once written that he insisted was related. But I failed to see the connection. “What does Charlemagne have to do with the Civil War?” I huffed. My irritation, right down to leaving the room and slamming the door behind me, didn’t faze him or break his stride. I could still hear him talking—to no one—as I stomped away. Still, it was hard to stay angry. I could never shake the feeling that whatever was going on wasn’t his fault.
I got some help from my maternal grandmother. As young as age six or seven, I can recall her telling me that my father’s parents hadn’t paid enough attention to him when he was my age. That’s why he constantly needed to remind people of who he was and of all the things he’d done. She also told me that this was why my father sometimes drank too much. “A good stiff drink can help you lose your inhibitions and overcome your insecurities,” she said. I wasn’t so sure. When my father drank, he didn’t seem to want to relate to anyone. Downing a few bourbons or a scotch after work had become a habit. The brown and amber liquids looked the same to me, especially in half-sized glasses with or without ice. It wasn’t an invitation to draw near.
There were times when my father said very little. On weekday mornings, he got ready for work with the Today Show on in the background, the volume high so he could hear the news program from any room in the house. He didn’t say a word during the hour he showered and shaved and dressed. The information that bounced around always seemed serious, punctuated by occasional chatter and laughter by the hosts.
On weekends, my father read a few newspapers, cover to cover. I liked to sit down next to him on the couch to look at the opposite page of whatever he was reading. He didn’t budge or say a word, and I didn’t interrupt. Reading the newspaper seemed to require a lot of concentration.
I liked staying up late to watch old movies or a ball game with my dad. Sometimes he took me to the real thing. Or I’d tag along with him to a political event. He was active in the local Democratic Party and the Civil Rights Movement—it was the ‘60s, and we lived in a racially divided city. At these events, I’d often hear people praising my father for his convictions. He led a successful campaign to defeat a ballot question that would have separated our suburb from the larger, more racially integrated school district. A white person called my father a n—-r lover during this battle. It made me anxious, but proud.
On the first anniversary of my father’s death at the age of ninety-two, I was looking through a box of papers and came across his resume. Many pages long, it contained an addition labeled Addendum to Resume for Period after June 1991 to Present. This stapled item was the only attempt my dad made at documenting his life.
Leafing through what now felt like a treasure in my lap, I realized how hard he’d worked to keep the accomplishments of his life up to date and how determined he was to make everything count. The resume chronicled the accolades he had boasted of in his long-winded orations over the years. Having grown up around my father, I knew that between the lines lay a lot of unspoken emotions and disappointments, too. He was a Harvard graduate with two advanced degrees—one earned in his sixties. As a Major during World War II, he commanded all-black troops in a still segregated army. He labored over fifty years in the workforce, mostly in management or consultant positions, never quite landing his dream job nor earning a lot of money. When he found himself laid off in 1991 at the age of seventy-three—a little noticed casualty of New York City’s financial meltdown—he didn’t have much to fall back on and was completely caught off guard. Entitled to some retraining, he jumped at the opportunity to go back to school. He gained computer skills (he often spoke of being the oldest, yet the most frequent visitor to the lab on weekends to practice) and took an intensive course that certified him as a paralegal. That’s all on the resume, too. I recall his struggle to swallow the fact that he wasn’t going to be hired anymore, by anyone. He made do with Social Security Benefits and a small retirement plan, and he volunteered at the United Nations on behalf of a Human Rights NGO.
He hoped that eventually—given his skills and background, and the fact that he’d worked at the United Nations in the 1940s—he’d be employed again. That didn’t happen. He tried to put the best spin on this, too, tossing off his hurt to others’ shortsightedness—nothing personal. I worked in public radio at the time and wrote some essays about my father’s predicament. My editors found the theme broad enough—especially considering what happens when older people are pushed out of the workforce—to put the pieces on the air.
This June, it will be three years since we buried Dad. He wasn’t in any mood to accept dying, and as his final days counted down, the look on his face was more that of frustration rather than resignation. He still had a lot on his mind and was bewildered that his body, his heart in particular, was giving out on him. Strangest of all, for me and for him, was the fact that he no longer had any energy to speak.
His situation and the unbearable silence made me want to fill in for him. While he lay there dying, I thought about his general decency and his desire to contribute to society, long after most people thought he was able to or should care. He was undaunted. I remembered a secretary of his once told me that no one treated his employees with more respect than my father had. My mind returned to stories of his experiences in England during World War II. He oversaw the delivery of bombs to awaiting fighter-aircraft across the English countryside. Black soldiers were assigned to drive the trucks carrying the volatile cargo, and the dangers they faced—as well as the racism—went unnoticed by many, but stayed with my dad long after the war. This fueled his determination to battle segregation when the Civil Rights Movement took hold later on.
I considered his razor sharp critique of the United State’s current health care system, always coupled with recommendations and solutions, long before I landed in that very kind of job. He was, by his very nature, someone who always wanted to improve things.
In his last two years, he thought about how to redesign the practices at the nursing home where he lived. He even tried to bend the ear of some staff.
“Your father talks all the time,” a heavily accented aide told me once when I was visiting.
“What about?” I asked.
“Oh, history, the news, politics. Even this place. I don’t have time to listen, but he sure has a lot on his mind.”
There’s no real ending to this story. My father loved to read biographies. I imagine he always wanted to be the subject of one, too. Sometimes I can hear him just getting warmed up to tell his story, and I find myself hanging on every word.
Madge Kaplan (email@example.com) is IHI’s Director of Communications and the Host and Producer of IHI’s online audio “talk show” WIHI. This essay first appeared in the online journal, Shadows Express.