For Father's Day today I am resurrecting a piece I wrote for The Charlotte News about ten years ago. Amazingly, everything I said about you and your habits of well-being still hold true for you today, at 75. I like this one because it's a testimony to the things you have taught us kids: keep it simple; don't draw a lot of attention to yourself; show up and get it done...the great pleasures of life are often the plainest of things that are right before our very eyes.
Lately it seems I have been watching more and more of my friend's parents grow old, become sickly and die. It is the great sorrow of life: as we age and our worlds become richer with family and experience, we contract disease, our bodies fail us and we must face the inevitability of our finite journey here on Earth. This reality is teaching me to value the time I have with you and Mom more than ever.
The other day I read a piece written by Hillary Clinton (stop making that face) about her mother -- clearly an incredible woman -- who passed recently. She referenced a quote: "I have loved and been loved in this lifetime. All the rest was background music." that I think beautifully sums up all that really matters in life.
Dad, I know this now: you have loved all of us deeply and purely. You have loved us in your simple, uncomplicated way. You have done the most important thing of all: you have shown-up. You are there for the games and the ceremonies and the births and the dinners. You fix all the broken things; you take care of the kids and the dogs; you take care of yourself and Mom so that you will be around for as long as possible, and you do it all in your quiet, no-nonsense style. You came from so little and you have wrought so much: 4 kids who do meaningful things: 8 grandkids who make us all look like slackers, and one more arriving in two weeks. Could there be more joy?
(From the June, 2003 issue of The Charlotte News)
Father (Still) Knows Best
I realize that the Health and Fitness issue isn’t necessarily the time to bring this up, but I’m going to say it anyway: I don’t now and never have had any sort of regular fitness routine. I could say I don’t have the time, but the truth is that what I lack is tenacity, plus there’s not a competitive bone in my body, meaning that I’ve never been inclined to train or prepare for anything in the future. But I think that I’m pretty healthy and mostly fit, depending on the time of year. This isn’t bragging -- it's mostly sheer luck, though I’m aware, heading further into my 40s, that my little dose of fortuitous genetics isn’t going to last forever. I’ve tried and failed many times over the years to be a gym-going, class-taking person; it just never works. Still, I have enormous respect for people who do the gym thing on a regular basis; it’s just not my style, and I’m pretty sure I know why. Like just about every other behavior I exhibit, I can trace this one back to my parents, Dad in particular.
Both of my parents lost their parents early in life, yet despite the lack of decent role models, they had plenty of good ideas and common sense when it came to raising four healthy, active kids without making a big deal of it. Moving around a lot and being athletic was simply something we did--there was no planning or organization involved. We were outside all the time playing with the other kids in the neighborhood. We shoveled a lot of snow and raked a lot of leaves. There was an unspoken understanding in our family that you should be able to run and you should be comfortable tossing a baseball and you should swim with confidence and plan on riding your bike a lot because Mom’s not going to drive you everywhere.
As a kid I remember trying to keep up with my dad when he went out running around the blocks. This was back around the time that Nike’s Bill Bowerman was tinkering with some rubber and the family’s waffle iron, inventing the famous Waffle Trainer, but I’m pretty sure that Pop wore plain old sneakers when he ran. There wasn’t a whole lot of awareness back then, in terms of eating and exercise habits. My friends’ moms laugh now when they tell their stories of giving birth, then lighting up a cigarette or having a celebratory cocktail in the hospital. And actually, it is kind of funny because it’s a good reminder of just how far the scales have tipped in the opposite direction. I heard recently that Nike and Apple had teamed up to produce some sort of iPod do-hickey that tells the user how far they’ve gone and cheers them on when they’re out running around. I always thought Dad’s old method worked pretty well--he’d take the car out for a drive to map his route, giving him a rough estimate of the distance and that gave him all the information he needed. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want when I’ve finally made it out of the house and into the peace of the outdoors, is for my shoes to be talking to me.
I also remember Dad coming home from work, changing into some sweats and heading down to the basement to lift weights. He had a set of free weights down there, the same set he still uses today. Like his running style, there was nothing fancy involved, and he didn’t call much attention to himself. He was always in good shape, probably because he had a bunch of active kids and he fully expected to be involved in their lives. Some of the fondest memories from my childhood came when we skipped school and headed to the mountain for a day of skiing with Dad. The best part, of course, was driving past the other kids at the bus-stop with the skis on the top of the car. Later in life, when frustration prevented me from being a good ski instructor for my two boys, Pa, as he is known to them, stepped in and gracefully taught them how to navigate the slopes. Now Sam’s doing 360s and skiing backwards and thank goodness I can’t keep up with him, because I’m too scared to look.
Dad pretty much hit the ground running when he retired thirteen years ago. He and Mom built a house in southern Vermont, though he’s not in it much. He spends his days skiing and golfing and hauling wood and cutting grass and doing fix-it stuff for his friends. And now, apparently, riding horses as well. Poor Mom. I’ll bet she didn’t think she’d be spending her golden years with a ski-bumming cowboy. I think it’s safe to say that the O’Brien kids got the message: A little bit of regular physical exertion goes a long way. Over the years we’ve tried just about every sport imaginable, including sailing, rowing, rock climbing, golf, cycling, tennis and windsurfing, with plenty of walking, hiking, running, skating and swimming thrown in. My sister, Kristin, is a professor in Alaska (and certainly more focused than the rest of us-- she ran the Boston Marathon a few years ago) whose family spends lots of time outdoors, skiing, hiking and camping. Life here in Vermont suits me very well--there’s plenty of fresh air to go around, and lots of space for gardening and swimming and chasing kids and dogs. Even my brother, who lives in New York City, rides his bike to work in good weather. Physical activity is woven into the fabric of our lives to the point that it doesn’t have a separate name; it’s just life. Keep it simple, keep it sane, have fun. You don’t need talking shoes and you don’t need fancy clothing, just get out there and move yourself through this big and wondrous world.
Thanks, Dad. And to this piece, today, I would add...love each other. Support, challenge, nurture and respect one another. And love the ever-living heck out of each other.