My dad was pretty nerdy, so it’s not like I thought he was cool when I was growing up or wanted to be just like him. The fact is I would cringe when people said we looked alike or had exactly the same mannerisms. If you think about that way that a parent can embarrass their teenage kid with something they do or say, he had that in spades.
He was not a real extroverted person, but he was always capable of talking your ear off. Which is funny looking back because one of the things I remember the most about him was his ability to say absolutely nothing. Throughout grade school he and I had a ritual involving the newspaper and Cheerios. We would sit in silence on either side of the table, each armed with one page of the funnies from the Washington Post while eating bowls of General Mill’s finest, mine with a little added sugar because I also lacked his billygoat mentality. At some point during the meal there would be a silent acknowledgement and we would swap pages. No laughter, no discussion, then off to work and school.
He could also make a point with silence. More specifically, by doing, not talking.
My dad built a house overlooking the Occoquan reservoir when I was in high school. When I say he built it I don’t mean that he laid every brick by hand, but he went about as far as a dentist working full-time could go. He started with a floor plan from a book but then reengineered much of the layout, including learning the structural codes, creating the technical drawings, and submitting them for approval from the county. He subcontracted the entire project and – much to my dismay – did as much as was humanly possible himself with the reluctant help of his relatively lazy and useless son. This included things like prepping the subfloors for concrete with much digging and gravel and wire and rebar, typically after work and using the high-beams of our faux wood-paneled Grand Marquis wagon to extend the day until 9 or 10 o’clock.
The house sat on a narrow peninsula overlooking the water (of course it’s still there) so the decks that went around the back of the house were really the only “yard” we had, and they were built on awkward and rugged ground. On a Saturday am, my assistance was requested digging the footings for this deck. In usual fashion, it had been ridiculously over-engineered, so the posts were 8 x 8 instead of 6 x 6 or (gasp) 4 x 4, and they were to be twice as deep and twice as wide as required. I remember spending what seemed an eternity but was probably 8- or 10-minutes chipping with a shovel at the solid earth in the indicated areas before declaring the task “impossible” and going rock-climbing with my friends.
When I came home that evening he was done, all the holes dug, the concrete poured. I was stunned. My mom: “I can’t believe you made your dad do all of that by himself.” He never said a word, and I don’t recall him asking for my help again as he went on to complete the entire multilayer structure himself, including a clever and exceedingly dangerous use of a skill saw to make polyhedral caps for the rail posts.
He waited probably 10 years to tell me he rented a post-hole digger that was apparently quite effective…
And that’s what I remember most about him: he led – and taught – by example. He served in the Lions Club his entire adult life. He never really talked about it, never dragged me to anything, he just helped out however he could, as much as he could. He never spoke about how hard he worked, and I only lasted one day following him around in his office, 10 hours non-stop excepting a 20-minute break to eat his peanut butter sandwich, another lifelong ritual. I didn’t appreciate the impact of his reluctance to hire dental hygienists (“People are paying me to take care of their teeth, not someone else…”) until much later in life. It was never about being better than the next guy and there was no such thing as work that was “beneath” him, there were just things that needed to get done, whether through ingenuity or extreme persistence.
He was known as a Mr. Fixit because he saw every task as a challenge, whether in the home, the car, on the water, or even in the air (yes, he had a pilot’s license though I was too young to know if he tinkered with the plane). He made a (very professional) Shepard’s crook for my sister’s dance as Little Bo Peep long before the internet. He fixed the plastic flip-lever on the coffee pot at church by casting the broken part in some type of dental mold at a time when 3D printers were called “replicators” on Star Trek. He made a TV from a kit (I can’t believe Heathkit is still in business) and mounted it flush in the wall of the basement 20 years before flat screens were a thing. He was filming my sister’s high school activities with a video camera and VCR recorder that he powered with “portable” kit containing a car battery – yes, a car battery – when the only way to get such footage was to make the local news.
And he was utterly fearless.
This used to scare the crap out of me because I never thought of my dad as particularly athletic or somehow possessing action-hero skills. His calmly (I think he was actually quite enjoying himself) sailing our San Juan 21 through a brutal thunderstorm while my sister and I sheltered in the cabin, our feet braced on the opposite bench looking at the low-side windows which were intermittently under water, my mom fairly certain that this was the end, makes a good example. Fire, explosions, caustic chemicals, sharp things flying through the air, none of these things really phased him. Most of his projects included a bleeding injury that went unnoticed and unattended until the project was complete, excepting the time he near-enough cut off the tip of his thumb with a saw – a career-ender for a dentist – and reluctantly paused whatever endeavor and had my mom take him to the plastic surgeon to have it put back on.
“You can’t do that” was like a siren’s call for my dad.
He would never have retired had our mom not gotten dementia. Looking back, his response to this was no different than anything else: there is something that needs to be done, and I will figure out how to do it myself. Nothing scared him, nothing could stop him.
It is very difficult – maybe impossible – for someone like him to transition from being the one that gets it done to the one that needs things done for them. He gave back as long as was humanly possible, volunteering at the Free Clinic teaching aspiring dentists some of the things he had mastered – like the ability to deliver a shot painlessly, a skill for which he was genuinely renowned – and holding onto usefulness after many of his capabilities had slipped away.
Because he was not one to talk about the things he had done, the only way I knew to honor him was to show him that it had all been worth it, that finally, after decades of his leading and teaching by example, I got it. Put others before yourself. No job is beneath you. Nothing is impossible. Be fearless. Never quit.
I’ll never have the chance to show or tell him what he passed on – that opportunity was taken from us – so nothing left to do but get it done. Godspeed dad, I’ll do my best.