Five years ago today, my now-wife asked me an important but seemingly innocuous question: where do you see yourself in 5 years. It’s a question that people ponder in spare moments all the time, but one that I’ve always taken seriously because I’d always had a 5, 10, 20+ year plan for my life. But at that moment, on August 12, 2006 – a day I’ll never forget – I had no answer. I felt empty and alone and like there was something terribly, terribly wrong. Unfortunately, there was.
A few hours later, sitting down to dinner at a crowded street cafe, I got a call from my mom. I could hear it in her voice before she said it, but still I had hoped it would be something less important. She told me that my dad was dead.
It still feels hollow to write that…almost like it never happened. For some reason, denial came late for me, but I went through all the other stages of grief very publicly. And I’ve found it’s true what people told me afterwards: the pain never goes away, though it becomes something different.
But this post isn’t about me. It’s about my dad. For all his faults, I loved him (I think we all did). In fact, it’s true that I loved him more in retrospect because of his faults. He could frustrate us so much with bullheadedness or giving someone the silent treatment if he didn’t like what s/he was saying. He almost always insisted on doing something himself, even if it was stupid to try and even if it wasn’t an imposition. He was never quite comfortable with people, though he wanted to be. He was bad with money and bad at holding his tongue with the people for whome he needed to hold his tongue the most. And of course, he left us too soon. There are a lot of lessons to be drawn from the end of my dad’s life, and I hope our family has taken some of them. I know I definitely have.
The lessons I’ll take most from my dad, though, are – thankfully – the lessons from his life. No matter what anyone else could say about him, there was no denying that he loved us. I felt like he grew wiser and more reflective over time. We frequently communicated by email since I had moved away, and our emails were often extended, philosophical discussions. In these, he offered as much as he received. The last thing he wrote to me included such a give and take: “What is your why? Hang in there, in fact, do better than just hang in here: make a difference every day,” which was just after: “Here’s my philosophical quandry of the day: If man is an element of nature, and the balance of nature maintains harmony, how can man have such excesses in some areas and so many deficiencies everywhere else?” Of course, it was most of his simple sayings that will stick with me the most. My favorite: “Just because you feel it, doesn’t mean it hurts.” A credo I’ve used to excess I think.
When I was little, I used to see all the things my dad would do and say that I thought were wrong. I promised – as everyone does – that I wouldn’t make those same mistakes when I was a father someday. But we inevitably have to look at ourselves and decide whether we like ourselves, and if we do, we give credit to those that raised us. So any “mistakes” get overshadowed by the successes. For my dad, that’s the case, and I hope it will be that way for my brother and mom as well. I don’t ever remember my dad missing an event that was important to us, for instance. I’m sure he did, but I know it must have hurt him to do so because those times were easy enough to forget because he was there every other time. And it wasn’t just games or recitals, but practices, stuff around the house, or whatever. I remember that he would sit for hours next to me in a chair by our computer as I instant messaged with friends. He would talk about whatever came to mind. Even then, while it had annoyed me, I always remember thinking how lucky I was to have someone who cared so much about me.
As I was getting ready to leave college, my dad came up for a weekend. As we sat in my room and talked, he told me something his dad used to tell him. His dad would say, “I picture my own father (or Father) in the room and wouldn’t do anything that he wouldn’t approve of.” But my dad said, “I picture my boys in the room because they’re the most important things in the world to me.” And despite some of the decisions he later made that I think reflected more confusion and misplaced pride, I believe he meant that.
Obviously I can’t capture everything about my dad that I loved, disliked, or will remember forever in a blog post. I shouldn’t anyway. Despite losing him publicly, his life is his family’s to remember and share. But as I’ve looked to this day for the last five years with a mix of dread and anticipation, I felt like I needed to publicly air some feelings. Many I’ve discussed privately, or written about, or just spent countless moments recalling. I still remember the feeling of his hand shake, with the calloused skin behind his thumb, or the feel of his shirts as I hugged him, and of course the sound of his voice. I close my eyes and I see him hitting a softball, swimming laps, or running a race. I see his face every morning in a picture on my dresser and I see his life everytime I do or say something like he did or said. Sometimes this makes me cry, sometimes smile, and often laugh, like I am now as I look at my desk drawer and see two of my dad’s desk drawer staples: a roll of toilet paper (“It’s good for everything: blow your nose, cleans your shoes, wipe something off!”) and a can of mixed nuts (“They take care of the “thungries” “).
So thank you for reading and remembering with me for awhile, even if many of you will never know my dad. But you can know this: he meant so much to me and I hope somewhere very deep inside of him that we always meant that much to him.
Who said it: Gary Schulze (Feb. 14, 1955 – Aug. 12, 2006)
Why it’s relevant: the last thing my dad ever wrote to me. At the time, it was more mundane than it sounds, but means a lot more in retrospect.
By now I suppose you are settled in and know what you
have and what you need. Let me know what I can do to