To Dad, With Love

“I can tell your Dad must mean a lot to you,” she smiles endearingly.
“Yes, yes, he does. I’m grateful to have him for a Dad,” I smile back, unexpected tears welling my eyes.

I’m on a flight back from Portland, chatting with a fellow traveler-turned-friend thanks to warm conversation over the backdrop of the early April Rocky Mountain snow.

I find myself in conversations with friends, whether new or old, in which I mention my dad, enthusing about his character with gratitude, and don’t worry, in a world of 24 million children with absent fathers, I don’t take him for granted.

So, Dad, Pops, Daddy-O,

Sit on down, ’cause this daughter of yours is about to give you a talkin’ to.

Dear Dad,
Growing up with you was like a grand adventure… that is, until we’d drive somewhere and you’d turn the radio to “Car Talk” on NPR. I can still hear those annoying men with thick Boston accents diagnosing callers’ concerns, “Well ya see, here’s what’s really wrong with ya caaaaah.” I’d sit in the front seat of the Oldsmobile van wondering how quickly we’d make it back from errands, while you tuned in intently, occasionally laughing about a joke that went over my five-year-old head.

There were bike rides and runs, and there still are today. You demonstrated fitness and showed me how to take care of my body, in the milieu of running paths and trails, from Valley Forge State Park to Boathouse Row, Philadelphia. There were camping trips each summer, my favorites being New Hampshire and Maine. You put your hand on dad campingmy shoulder and pointed towards the night sky.
“You ever seen the milky way?”
“No, Dad.”

We gazed upwards, two heads staring into vastness and mystery, overtaken with appropriate smallness and grandeur, as we marveled at God’s artistry. It was you who cultivated in me a love for the Earth around us.

dad snowYou taught me how fun life is when you stay young at heart, by running with a grocery cart down the grocery aisle, hopping on, and shouting, “weeeeee!” You reminded me how humorous life can be when you have a penchant for toilet humor. How fun each morning can be by watching cartoons in your suit and tie. Oh, and how ’bout the time you broke your arm while playing basketball with the kids next door? Christmas 2010 sledding?

dad laurenYou showed me what was in my control and what was not- and to let go of what you can’t change. I’m sure you never anticipated the behavioral challenges that having a child with special needs would entail, but I watched you hang on with patience and love. In doing so, you introduced me to the wonderful world of Special Olympics, where I watched you set your soul on fire with life as a coach. You know each athlete by name, and can probably quote their P.R.s by heart. You took a van full of athletes up to Rhode Island for a 5k race, and patiently sat through Sunday afternoon George Washington bridge traffic, while one of the athletes talked incessantly,
dad“Are we on 95, Coach Scott?” “Are we in New York, Coach Scott?” “Coach Scott, what time will we be home?” You kept your eyes on the road and patiently, but firmly requested that the athlete please be quiet ’til we got home. Amazing how much quicker the ride seemed to go from that point onward.

The family challenges didn’t stop with Lauren. You took two days off work to take an indignant 17 year old (that would be me) on mapped out campus tours of New England colleges, while I cried, and informed you that I didn’t want to grow up.

A year later, I totaled the Corolla when I fell asleep at the wheel. You answered that dreaded 12:30 AM phone call, met me at the hospital, and drove me home, not shaming me or belittling me. When I got into my next car accident a few years later, I remember walking into the house, expecting to be yelled at or grounded for being so irresponsible. I approached you with tears in my eyes, because disappointing you was a punishment in and of itself. Instead of punishing me, you took my yellow swimming towel from my hand, dried my tears, and asked me how I was doing. It felt like that Prodigal Son story, and I still tell people about your actions whenever that story comes up. You’re a lavish grace-giver, and I have no excuse not to do the same for others. 

When I eventually succumbed to the fact that college was coming whether I liked it or not, for four years you made four-hour round trip car rides down 95 to sweat through five-hour long swim meets at Burdick Hall, just to watch me swim for 3.5 minutes of those 5 hours. But you were no fair weathered fan; you cheered on the Tigers from Boston to Virginia and almost every state in between. You celebrated PRs with me, and provided encouragement when I struggled to hang on as it got hard and I hit plateaus. You took pictures of me in my cap and gown on starting blocks after graduation, donning a bittersweet farewell to the NCAA. But it didn’t end there. You drove us down a year later to watch my college roommate on her senior day at Burdick. Except this time, we both sweat together through the meet from the stands.

You supported me when I cried my way through my decision not to leave for Peace Corps and prepped me through my first real job interview. You helped me set up my first retirement account. An older co-worker asked me lots of questions about it, stating she wished she had a Dad like you to guide her through these choices. I’m so much better prepared for the future thanks to you.  A year into the real world, you coached me on how to complete my own performance review and told me that I needed to stop worry about my life.

You’ve listened to me muse about marriage and family, and when I told you I’m keeping my last name whenever I get married, you supported me with an open mind.

As we both get older, and I’ve watched a small number of friends lose a parent, I think of you with a cherishing grip. I want you to be here as long (or longer) as your now 94 year old mother. I hope that everyday, until that day, I will tell you how much you mean to me, so that you die knowing every good and beautiful thing you’ve done. I want to remind you that each time you hung on with strength and patience in the midst of challenging adversity, I noticed, and am better for it. You’ve been a wonderful father and I know you’ll be a great grandfather too, one day, perhaps, (far, far, away).
But spare them on the Car Talk.

I love you; I always will-

Mel

dad mel

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A few telescopes, some friends, and plenty of stars.

Saturday, June 8th, Solider’s Delight Natural Environment Area:

“That doesn’t look like a swan,” someone in the group mutters aloud.

“Well, you have to have an imagination. Remember, when the Native Americans, Greeks, and Arabs named the stars, they could see them billions at a time; there was no light pollution to inhibit their view,” an astronomer whiz shares with us.

It’s late Saturday night, and some friends and I are at Soldier’s Delight for a stargazing night put on by the Westminster Astronomy Club. Volunteers set up their elaborate telescopes for the community to use the second Saturday evening of each month. And this month, some friends and I decide to not miss out on the opportunity to look up in wide-eyed wonder.

“That’s M21 out there, you see it, to the right?” our instructor, Skip, motions.

“No, but what’s M83?” I ask.

“One of the galaxies.”

“Oh.. it’s also the name of a great band,” I share, feeling some celestial connection of music and stars.

The stars elicit questions a mile long.

What was the transit of Venus all about? What was the most memorable stargazing experience you’ve ever had? What’s the difference between a red dwarf and a brown dwarf?

“How many satellites are in the sky on any given night?” I ask.

“Well, it depends, you might be seeing an in-tact satellite, or a glove falling from a satellite, or just general space junk…” Skip muses.

“Space junk, is that anything like Space Jam?” my friend Rajni asks. We all laugh from the ground, bodies sprawled out on grass and cement in wonder and gratitude.

It’s 10 PM, which segues into 11 PM, but time is put on hold for now, and I try to stay here in this moment, in this solitude, underneath this sky, with these friends that I yearned for when I moved to inner city Baltimore a couple of years ago, lonely, and wondering what the hell I was doing was with my life.

A warm gratitude relaxes my body, like a soothing cup of hot tea, and I lay my head onto the grass. It’s amazing how many satellites you can trace with your finger across the night sky if you sit down long enough to look up.

We take turns looking through high-tech telescopes, pointed at double stars, galaxies, and Saturn. I peer into the lens. Inside, a round, pale yellow circle enclosed by a thick ring stares back, a distant object the size of my pinky fingernail.

“Woah!”

“Wow.”

“Awesome.”

Each phrase becomes a prayer, connecting us to the universe around us, back to a Maker, a Creator, that larger presence that some of us don’t mind calling God.

I find hope, awe, wonder, humility, and faith looking into each telescope lens, scientific tools enabling us to learn and unlearn of a world we cannot understand, of a largeness and vastness that just keeps going and going and going to… where? I don’t know.

But up above our heads gracefully dangle bands of gas that have swirled together to sustain a planet light years away, light from something so far away that we’re merely looking back in time to what it was lightyears ago, a time-space continuum that baffles my mind, like Back to the Future, or traveling back in time, a perpetuity I’m half-scared and half-ecstatic to enter to into, wondering if you were catapult yourself into this space, what time would it actually be?

A few telescopes, some friends, and plenty of stars bring my mind into the past and the present and future all at once. My memories drift back to the night sky of Botswana, Africa in August 2007. My 20 year old self is sleeping under the African sky with a tent full of snoring “macoas” (white people) and crickets. Just on the edge of the horizon, The Southern Cross peers out, playing a peek-a-boo game with sky and Earth. Alas, in winter solstice, that’s all we see of it this night, though hardly a disappointment. There’s stars everywhere, and they shine like the smiles of each child I met over the past two weeks here, some in orphanages, some in villages, some walking back home from school, waving jovially.

I enter back into the stars of the present, my night at Soldier’s Delight with friends, my heart drenched in melancholy for Africa, a pining so emotive, I remind myself of the promise I made to myself: to return to Africa by the time I’m 30, and I re-commit to it with alacrity.

I guess that’s what the stars do to us: awaken our sense of curiosity and wonder, our desire to learn more ponderings of how we got here, and what does it all mean, and this can’t be it, right? A pep talk sans spoken word, just twinkling of molecules daring each of us to dream bigger and surround ourselves with people who will believe in you, who will nurture the restless adventurer inside who never ceases to explore, ready for another question, a brand new musing.

And so tonight it seems there is much to be thankful for. Friends, genuinely good people, the ones I’d been trying to find in this city for the previously lonely past couple years. My life feels rich and full and like it’s about to exciting, because these dreams in my mind refuse to stay quelled as a mere idea, no— they’re ready to leap out into daylight, into air, into existence in movement and dance. I want to see it all unfold. New visas. Plane tickets. A life of making merry and mess and saying what I want to say even if  my voice trembles. I want to experience a love sopping wet with life and adventure, disheveled wet drops pouring over two lovers who view everyday by asking, “How much fun can we create today?” One dream lending itself to another, another one birthing out of the completion of the former.

Alas, we drive home, but my mind is still creating new possibilities. I pay attention to car headlights meeting cement, occasionally glancing to the side to check for deer along the tree-filled roads. My friends and I talk quietly in the car, softly, sleepily, but my mind is somewhere else— Still grappling with the fact that the planet I learned about in middle school science class, drawn in a text book, not only hangs above us in the night sky, but is able to be viewed by our little eyes if only we stop to look. It’s in the sky, right now, as I type, as you read this; it’s so so far way away, appearing like a mere sticker through a 150 power telescope. But it’s out there.

Hope.

It’s out there.

Peace.

It’s out there, again and again, night after night after night after night; these sunsets, these stars, these planets, all hovering above us, never shouting, nor demanding our attention, but exuding a captivating pull, begging us into a story of wonder and awe.

I’m back at the house, eyes closed, trying to fall asleep. All I can see is the ingrained image of Saturn, an image I know will come back to me time and time again as I live out this next week. A soothing image massaging my shoulders, whispering a loving, “Don’t you worry, Child,” to all who ponder its mystery. “I won’t,” I promise back. Tomorrow, maybe, but for right now, I won’t worry. And if I’m lucky, Saturn’s image might come back in and speak that love song of serenity into my soul, into my toes, into my finger, oh I’ll live blown away…

Photo Credit: Wellington Astronomical Society