My phone calls to him used to be obligatory, but loss has a way of changing things
By Jill Smolowe for Next Avenue
When I was a college undergraduate, I used to call my parents every Thursday night. The calls were mandatory, the price of college tuition, so to speak. Invariably, my mother would answer, then yell, “Dick! Pick up! It’s Jill.”
Nothing of substance was ever said about my coursework. And certainly I wasn’t going to tell them who I was sleeping with or what I was smoking. So, I remember not one thing about these phone calls beyond this: both of my parents were on the line, I was itchy to get off so I could get back to my life and any parental input pretty much came from my mother.
Our no-obligation daily phone call
On Father’s Day this year, I, like millions of Americans, will call my dad. But there will be nothing dutiful or obligatory about it. These days, I speak with my father daily. Sometimes I dial his speed number; just as often, he dials mine. Often the conversation begins, “Hi, I can’t remember if we talked today.” We laugh. Then we talk, whether we’ve already talked earlier in the day or not. These conversations are never obligatory and most definitely are never a chore.
To the contrary, I can’t imagine a day going by without speaking to my dad. (Well, unless he’s traveling. He and cell phones — fuggedaboutit.) I talk with him not because I feel I have to, but because I want to. At this point, he’s not just my father. He’s my financial adviser. My friend. The one person in the universe, other than my husband, with whom I touch base daily. I know the details of my father’s days; he knows the details of mine. At 60, I find my relationship with my father widening, our intimacy deepening, our love (always solid) developing still new layers.
Some days, we talk about the markets and dividend reinvesting. Other days, we discuss news developments: the Syrian refugee crisis, Putin’s latest maneuvering, the U.S. presidential campaign. The only topic I try to steer wide of is Israel. (Generational differences. It never ends happily.) All days, we discuss the weather, but only briefly.
How Dad dazzles me
Some days, he dazzles me. Last November, for instance, I dropped him at the airport at 6 p.m. for a 9:44 p.m. flight. (He has this thing about getting to airports waaay early.) He was heading home after a visit and should have been walking through his front door at 1 a.m. Instead, when I phoned the next day at 11 a.m., he greeted me with, “I just got home.” Plane problems, followed by flight reschedulings the airline didn’t sort out until after midnight, had resulted in my dad spending the night on a couch in a food court. The guy is 85!
Did he tell me about his aches or the airport chaos? No. Instead, the guy who used to run a women’s apparel business said this about his ordeal: “It made me think about the refugees. All that trekking. This was not planned, very disruptive. I wanted to get back home. Think of those people, losing their homes, their countries, then landing in countries that don’t want them. It rocked me.”
My rock during tough times
These days, we also discuss our personal lives — sometimes in intimate detail. My two brothers and I joke, “TMI.” But for me, actually, there is no too-much-information when it comes to the man we all call Big D. That barrier began to crumble in 2007 after my husband, Joe, was diagnosed with leukemia.
At the time, I was spending long days at the hospital, then coming home to a barrage of voicemail messages I was too exhausted to handle. I needed someone who could relay the day’s medical developments to other family members. My father was hardly the obvious choice, given his family standing as the “ostrich,” my mother’s term for his tendency to put his head in the sand when emotional stuff kicked up. But I knew my father to be a succinct and reliable communicator. I could count on him to relay the often-complicated medical details to my mother and three siblings without spin or distortion.
As the weeks, then months, went by, I realized that I’d come to rely on Dad as my sounding board. He never tried to steer my thinking on difficult medical decisions. Rather, he helped guide me back to information I’d given him previously that might help inform whatever decision Joe and I were facing.
After Joe died in June 2009, I haven’t a clue how frequently I spoke with my father. That period, frankly, was too much of a blur. Certainly, there was an uptick in our phone calls come the turn of 2010. My sister was dying from colon cancer up in Vermont; my mother was dying from age-related complications down in North Carolina. It was, to put it mildly, a very bad time. My touching base with my father, him touching base with me, helped steady both of us.
It was after my sister died in August of that year, followed less than three weeks later by my mother, that I began to call my father daily. Initially I called because I was concerned how he was weathering widowerhood. But in short order, self-imposed obligation became habit became a genuine desire to hear his voice and his thoughts each day, every day.
Our intimate relationship, after all these years
By this time, I’d met online the man who would become my second husband. I wanted my father to venture into the cyber-dating world, too. My mother had pounded him with the message that he should look for a new mate quickly. She did not want him to be alone. Neither did I.
And so, our conversations took a more intimate turn as I helped my father sign up on the same two cyber dating sites I’d used. As he began to venture out, meeting not-Mom women for the first time in some 60 years, he could sound like a giddy schoolboy with his (OK, sometimes TMI) stories.
I’ve loved seeing this social being emerge. And I love the intimacy that has evolved between us as a result. At times, I find myself telling him things I haven’t shared with even my closest female friends. It’s so unexpected. So trusting. So lovely.
Next month, my dad turns 87. He exercises daily, eats a healthy diet and has all his faculties. But I am very aware that he is aging. Very aware that he is slowing down. Very aware that there will come a day when he will not be there to receive a Father’s Day call. I am also keenly aware that I am not at all prepared for this. Every time he doesn’t feel well (which isn’t often), a mantra begins in my head: “I’m not ready for him to go.”
How can I be? At this point in my life, this amazing man is not only my father. He is my friend. My adviser. My ear. My shoulder. My witness. For that, I not only love him. I adore him.
Happy Father’s Day, Big D. I am so grateful you’re my dad.