George William Heigho II — born July 10, 1933, died March 19, 2010.
Today I want to honor my dad and tell you about how I eventually gave him something in return for all he’d given me.
My dad was the most influential person in my life until I was married. He was the obvious authority in the family, very strict and powerful. His power was sometimes expressed in angry outbursts like a deep bellow, more often in calculated punishments encased in logical rationalizations. I knew he was to be obeyed. I also knew he could be playful. He loved to build with wooden blocks or sand. Elaborate structures would spread across the living room floor or the cottage beach front, and my dad would be lying on his side adding finishing touches long after I’d lost interest. He taught me verse after verse of silly songs with the most scholarly look on his face. He took photographs with his Leica and set up slide shows with a projector and tripod screen after dinner when I really begged him. He often grew frustrated with the mechanics of those contraptions, but I would wait hopefully that the show would go on forever. It was magic to see myself and my family from my dad’s perspective. He was such a mystery to me. I thought he was God for a long time. He certainly seemed smart enough to be. He was a very devout Episcopalian, Harvard-educated, a professor and a technical writer for IBM. He was an introvert, and loved the outdoors. When he retired, he would go off for long hikes in the California hills by himself. He also loved fine dining, opera, ballet, and museums. He took us to fabulously educational places — Jamaica, Cozumel, Hawaii, and the National Parks. He kept the dining room bookcase stacked with reference works and told us that it was unnecessary to argue in conversation over facts.
My father was not skilled in communicating about emotions. He was a very private person. Raising four daughters through their teenaged years must have driven him somewhat mad. Tears, insecurities, enthusiasms and the fodder of our adolescent dreams seemed to mystify him. He would help me with my Trigonometry homework instead.
I married a man of whom my father absolutely approved. He walked me down the aisle quite proudly. He feted my family and our guests at 4 baptisms when his grandchildren were born. I finally felt that I had succeeded in gaining his blessing and trust. Gradually, I began to work through the more difficult aspects of our relationship. He scared my young children with his style of discipline. I asked him to refrain and allow me to do it my way. He disowned my older sister for her choice of religion. For 20 years, that was a subject delicately opened and re-opened during my visits. I realized that there was still so much about this central figure in my life that I did not understand at all.
In 2001, after the World Trade Center towers fell, I felt a great urgency to know my father better. I walked into a Christian bookstore and picked up a book called Always Daddy’s Girl: Understanding Your Father’s Impact on Who You Are by H. Norman Wright. One of the chapters contained a Father Interview that listed dozens of questions aimed at bringing out the father’s life history and the meaning he assigned to those events. I decided to ask my father if he would answer some of these questions for me, by e-mail (since he lived more than 2,000 miles away). Being a writer, this was not a difficult proposition for him to accept. He decided how to break up the questions into his own groupings and sometimes re-phrase them completely to be more specific and understandable and dove in, essentially writing his own memoirs. I was amazed, fascinated, deeply touched and profoundly grateful at the correspondence I received. I printed each one and kept them. So did my mother. When I called on the telephone, each time he mentioned how grateful he was for my suggestion. He and my mother shared many hours reminiscing and putting together the connections of events and feelings of years and years of his life. On the phone, his repeated thanks began to be a bit eerie. Gradually, he developed more symptoms of dementia. His final years were spent in that wordless country we later identified as Alzheimer’s disease.
I could never have known at the time that the e-mails we exchanged would be the last record of my dad’s memory. To have it preserved is a gift that is priceless to the entire family. I finally learned something about the many deep wounds of his childhood, the interior life of his character development, his perception of my sister’s death at the age of 20 and his responsibility in the lives of his children. My father is no longer “perfect”, “smart”, “strict” or any other concept or adjective that I could assign him. He is simply the man, my father. I accept him completely and love and respect him more holistically than I did when I knew him as a child. That is the gift I want to give everyone.
I will close with this photo, taken in the summer of 2008 when my youngest daughter and I visited my father at the nursing home. I had been widowed 6 months, had not yet met Steve, and was anticipating my father’s imminent passing. My frozen smile and averted eyes are fascinating to me. That I feel I must face a camera and record an image is somehow rational and irrational at the same time. To honor life honestly is a difficult assignment. I press on.
December 20. The 20th free gift of the month is something that can be acquired, but cannot be bought. I don’t think that it can be given, either. The gift is Wisdom. According to Wikipedia, “Wisdom is a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgements and actions in keeping with this understanding.” In other words, “To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) However, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future. (George Bernard Shaw) And finally, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” (Mohandas K. Gandhi)
It would seem, then, that wisdom is something that can be acquired in living with awareness and engaging humbly with experiences. It seems to me, though, that you can’t give someone the benefit of this process. You might point out the process and talk about its benefit, you might set up the beginning of the process, but you can’t impart the journey or the result. It has to be lived. I’m a mother; trust me on this. I wanted to give my children wisdom more than anything, probably for selfish reasons. I wanted to be spared the pain. I wanted to spare them the pain. I asked God to give them wisdom…like on a magic platter descending from heaven…but spare them the pain. Can’t be done. Wisdom is born of pain and suffering and effort and failure. You have to be awake through it all as well. You can’t gain wisdom while you’re anesthetized. I’ve made a great discovery, though. This process is a great equalizer. Keeping Gandhi’s wisdom in mind, my children and I are fellow travelers on this path. We share our stories as friends, we perhaps contribute insights to this process, but we cannot assume the roles of provider and receiver. I try to remember that as I talk to them. It is too easy for me to slip into the “teacher” role and begin to spew language about what they “should” do and what is the “right” way to do something. I often issue too many reminders and begin to sound like I’m micro-managing them. They notice. They mention it. I have to challenge myself to be wiser and trust them to be wise.
I remember the day my father told me that something I said was wise. It felt like a great victory for me. I was 19 or 20. I had been talking to my oldest sister about some article I had read in an evangelical Christian newsletter taking issue with science and carbon dating. My father was eavesdropping from the breakfast room and jumped on the subject by voicing some objection to the fact that the money he was paying for my college education hadn’t stopped me from discoursing like an ignoramus. I was scared of his strong emotion, ashamed of myself, and angry at his insult. Embarrassed and hurt, I fled. We didn’t speak for 3 days. I realized that he wasn’t going to apologize to me or mention the event on his own, so I decided I needed to take the initiative to talk to him about my emotions, clear the air, and try to restore our relationship. I’d never talked to my father about our relationship very much before. He was always right, often angry, and anything that was amiss was my fault. I also knew that he would not show his emotions, that it would be a “formal discussion” on his part, but that I would probably not be able to contain my tears, making me feel foolish and not his equal. I decided to brave the consequences and approach him with Kleenex in hand. I began to talk, and cry, and tell him how I felt. Then he asked me if I wanted an apology. “What do you want me to say?” I told him that part was up to him. My dictating an apology to him would be meaningless. That’s when he said, “That is very wise.” Suddenly, I felt I had grown up and been respected as an equal to my father in some way. What I understood or didn’t understand about evolution and carbon dating and creation didn’t matter to me any more. That I had been able to navigate emotions with my father and repair a broken relationship was far more significant.
Wisdom isn’t easy to get, but it is available. If you pursue it, you’ll probably get it eventually. It’s completely avoidable, though, if you so choose. I know which way I want to go, so I’ll keep paddling my canoe and checking the horizon. For those of you heading the same way, STEADY ON! I salute you.