My dad would have been 100 years old today. This is my favorite picture of the two of us—it was the father-daughter dance at my first marriage celebration back in 1991. I was singing (softly, a band was playing it loudly) that great line, “Did you ever know that you’re my hero?”
I haven’t told many people much about him. He was basically one of the first people to ever have a computer science degree, back at MIT in the late 30s as an undergrad and then as a grad student in the early 40s. He had a profound impact on the computer…..you know that thing you hold in your hand and never have far from your reach? Yeah, that. He helped design the SABRE System, which became the reservation system for all the airlines, hotels, and rental cars.
Dad was born in Medford, Oregon, because his father, who helped build dams all over the world, was working on the Klamath Dam at the time. His mother was one of the first women to graduate from Stanford, in the class of 1908. She was a very accomplished painter. They came from humble beginnings: their parents could’ve posed for American Gothic—that famous painting of the farmer with the pitchfork and a woman who looks to be his wife.
When he was still quite young, his family moved to Burlingame, California, where they lived in a house designed by Julia Morgan, the architect for Asilomar and San Simeon (Hearst Castle). One fascinating thing about my grandparents is that after a bullet just missed them as they rode a train in Chicago, they decided that they were here for a bigger purpose and dedicated the rest of their lives to serving others.
After MIT Dad worked as an engineer for the Navy. Just after the war my mother became a librarian at one of the Naval research centers, and that’s where they met. Actually, she was thinking of becoming a nun, but he talked her out of it!
He started working at IBM in the 50s. I owe my life, literally to SABRE. While it brought gajillions of dollars to IBM, it brought a trip to Europe for my parents; it was there that they decided to have one last child, their fifth.
My favorite times with Dad were at the seashore, where he taught me how to ride waves and we’d build castles and tunnels in the sand. He’d always shake my hand when our hands met up in the middle of the tunnel. A former Eagle Scout, he taught me how to tie intricate knots. My mom frequently read to me when I was very young, but as she became sicker and sicker, he took over. He read the All-of-a-Kind Family and Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Sometimes I’d read ahead and he’d get a little miffed because he’d wanted to hear the whole story, too, hehe. He held my hand sometimes as I was falling asleep to protect me from the monsters under the bed.
And……….he was an alcoholic. Anyone who’s spent any time in the near vicinity of an alcoholic knows one thing for certain: there’s nothing certain. The ground is always moving. One minute there’s abounding love; next minute, nothing. One minute, reasonable; the next minute, not so much. Children of alcoholics receive on-the-ground combat training in discernment, intuition, reading people and situations, and assessing the energy before entering the room. For the most part, he was a pretty mellow drunk—except when he wasn’t. He wasn’t physically violent (thankfully—and loving blessings to all who endured acts of violence), just….unreasonable. Unpredictable. Ugly.
After Mom died in 1979 his drinking got worse. She’d been known in the hospital as the woman with the wonderful husband, which must’ve been hard for her to hear because I’m sure she preferred being in the hospital to being home with him. I’m also sure she wished she had become a nun. I mention that phrase for him to show that he was definitely able to be “wonderful.” Someone once referred to him as an old-world gent. But not at home, he wasn’t—at least not as often as we would’ve liked.
Luckily I went off to college not long after that. Seeing him during those years was ridiculously hard, though. I’m amazed I’m still alive after some of his driving escapades. I just surrendered and thought, well, if I’m supposed to be here, I will be.
So life with him was wonderful…and awful…and everywhere in between.
He stopped drinking in 1984. My sisters and I went to the family program at the rehab he went to, and while I’d been fairly spiritual before that, my deeper spirituality was launched. He and I grew a little closer, but his behavior and attitudes didn’t change all that much…not for a while, anyway.
One day in 1987 he called and asked, “Have you ever heard of Deepak Chopra?” I literally looked at the phone in my hand. (Remember those things with the curly cords? Yeah, that.) “Dad?” I said into the phone. “Is this really you?” He laughed.
And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Oh, my goodness. When people say that people don’t change, I say, “Oh, but they do!” We can’t ever wait for them to change, of course—but, ohhhhh, they can.
I gave him Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh (called Thuy, which means “teacher,” by his students), which Dad carried with him every day for the rest of his life. He just loved that I interviewed Thuy in 1999 for one of my documentaries. I gave him a number of books by Thuy as well as books by Jack Kornfield, Neale Donald Walsch, and many, many others.
We got to have 22 years of this loving, beautiful, kind, generous, gracious man. He and I took several trips together, including to Medford and Yosemite. A devoted member of AA and follower of the 12 Steps, Yosemite is where he made his amends to me. Our conversations grew more and more amazing: profoundly philosophical, spiritual, and esoteric.
When he was dying, my sister called and told me to catch the next plane. He hadn’t been recognizing people nor able to talk, but when I walked in to his hospital room he said, “Aaannnnnnnnnnn!”
Two of my sisters and I sat beside him. “I love you!” he called out to each of us. “We love you, too, Dad!” we said. A week before, two of his children and many of his grandchildren gathered around him. “I’m a very wealthy man,” he said, referring to his large, loving family. One thing—of numerous things—his multitude of grandchildren agreed on was, “Granddad gives the best hugs!”
The doctors told us that he might have been holding on because he was waiting for permission to leave. Late one night I was sitting on the edge of his bed, holding his hand. I thought back to the time he landed in the hospital (from a seizure from the withdrawal of alcohol) and asked me for a Ginger Ale—the first non-alcoholic beverage I ever saw him drink, other than coffee. “Sure, I’ll get you a Ginger Ale,” I said, smiling through my tears. That was the prelude to his rehab stint that changed his—and my—life.
I thought of the time he landed in the hospital after falling in the street and hitting his head. This man definitely was part cat, what with his nine lives. And, of course, I remembered all the times he had held my hand as I was falling asleep to protect me from those crazy monsters. Truthfully, he’d been one of the monsters, but I’d come to a place of forgiveness long ago. It was so wonderful to overflow with love for him after so many years of living in the loving/fearing/despising/not-wanting-to-be-near-him/OK-maybe-he’s-not-so-bad-until-he-was-again blender.
He opened his eyes and asked, “What am I doing?” I put my arms around him and said, “Well, your body is very, very tired, and it’s okay with us if you want to lay it down and move on. We love you so much and thank you for bringing us into this world. If you want to, just relax and let go into the arms of love.” And the next morning that’s just what he did, with his hands crossed peacefully over his stomach, the way he often slept in his later years.
And, for the other end of that huge spectrum we call life, my husband and I were married a week later, with his two teenage children as our maid of honor and best man. Synchronistically, at least my then-new husband had been able to meet my dad a few weeks beforehand.
Oh, so much life. So much was given and taken. So much went up and down, back and forth. So big, so small. So much confusion intermingled with so much clarity. And through it all, even though it was hiding at times, was so much love.