How Do You Measure a Life?

10/17/2013

How do you measure a life? There’s achievements, family, friends, material wealth. Maybe you can count the impact you’ve made in all those areas. Since I was 15 years old, I’ve measured life as 46 years, 338 days. That’s the number of days my dad walked this earth. And today, I’ve lived one day longer.

Dad & Me Circa 1967

But lifespan is only one way you can measure the time we spend amongst our fellow human beings. I measure his life in what he taught me by example. Many of us idealize our dads, but think I had much more time than most to do so.

 

My dad was born in Detroit in 1935, during the depth of the great depression, the 3rd of 10 children born to Percy and Isabel. I learned to count to 10 by naming my dad and his siblings. I know a few of the stories of his early life. He was born on October 2nd, while his mom was in labor desperately asking for the score of the Tigers – Cubs game, Game 1 of the World Series. (The Tigers lost 3-0). His hair was so blond he was nicknamed Frosty. If he wandered away from home, his mom knew she could find him nearby, listening to elderly neighbors tell stories to him. He was chased, and ‘goosed’ by a goose the neighbors were keeping as a pet and possibly for food.

 

His family moved to south Florida in 1945. He ran the streets with his brothers and friends, and occasionally got into trouble but nothing serious. He learned about auto mechanics at his dad’s auto repair garage. As he grew, he grew quickly, topping out at 6’3” and earning sloped shouldered posture. I had a similar growth-spurt but only made it to at 5’10”. However, I earned the same set of shoulders. He was recruited to play basketball for Miami Jackson high school, and still threw a standing-set shot when he played with my brothers and me years later.

 

After high school, he moved back to Detroit to live with an uncle, Uncle Gordon, who became a third grandfather in my life. He started working with the phone company and was partnered up with another man who became an uncle, Uncle Pete. Dad called him ‘the old man’, because he was 3 or 4 years older than him. This was when they were both in their early 20’s. Uncle Pete’s still in my life. Once, after my dad passed away, one of his brothers, my Uncle George, was talking about family to me. He said, ‘nothing’s closer than family, except your dad and your Uncle Pete. But that’s unique in my experience.’

 

But it wasn’t unique to my dad. He married into a family of four girls, and each of my uncles on that side of the family was like a brother to him as well. His father-in-law called him ‘The Captain’, even though was a police patrolman, then sergeant. When my mom’s dad passed away, I was 11 and it was the first big loss in my life. I was inconsolable. He put his arm around me and walked me around the block at the funeral home. He didn’t have to say anything. His presence was enough.

 

That’s one of the lessons my dad taught me, to have an expanded sense of family.

 

By the time he was in his mid-20’s, he decided to join the Army. It’s a decision most people make eight or ten years earlier. While his two older brothers served in Korea, and his two youngest brothers served in Vietnam, my dad spent his time as a communications specialist in Okinawa. He’d spout some Japanese phrases later in life, which, along with a smattering of Gaelic in my mom’s life, seeded an early interest in foreign languages in me.

 

He returned to the US, and now in his late 20’s, changed careers once again, joining the Detroit Police Department in what I’m sure was a class of teens and young 20-somethings. But he made the grade, and eventually earned Sergeant’s stripes as a homicide detective.

 

His police partner, Jack and his family were as close as relatives during this period of his life. I recently re-connected with these folks, and it reinforced how big my dad’s sense of family really was.

 

Following my dad’s example of resilience through career change has been tough, but comforting at some pretty dark times in my life.

 

There’s the example of service. He always carried a toolbox in the car, in case we came across someone who needed a roadside repair in the days before cellphones and easy access to AAA. We stopped in blizzards to pick up pedestrians and deliver them home safely. On one particularly snowy night, I asked him to slow down to see if I recognized who was plodding along in the snow. I didn’t and said so. His response was ‘what does that matter?’ And we picked them up anyway.

 

He could have quick temper, and spoke so quickly that you almost couldn’t understand the words. But he also had kindness. The only time I ever called him at work, at the homicide bureau, was to tell him I was quitting the football team to run cross country instead. I expected him to be angry, because he loved football. Months later, though, he was attending cross country meets. I remember seeing him as I rounded one part of a course; he had his long arms spread out holding the crowd back as I and the rest of the runners went by. He made the transition easily.

 

And then, there was the relationship between my mom and dad. Her story was that they met at a wedding of mutual friends, and that she was ‘afraid’ she’d ask him out. But she said yes, and they started their lives together.

 

The shared just 20 years together as husband and wife. They struggled to have children, and then had 3 in quick succession: me and my two brothers. “My three sons”, they used to say, just like the TV show.

 

She survived him by 14 years. What their relationship taught me was that to be successful, you have to compromise, have a great sense of humor and don’t take yourself too seriously.

 

So as I surpass his lifespan, I know I haven’t surpassed his life. I doubt I ever will. I hear his words in my life, and in how I try to live my life. On integrity: “You only have one name. Your word is your bond.” Or more coarsely, ‘don’t be a sh*tbird.’ Speak clearly, and say what you mean. “Don’t be mealy-mouthed”. And of course, the baffling admonishment to a six or seven year old child: “You can mash potatoes, but you can’t pee soup.”

I haven’t made more out of these 46 years, 338 days than he did. But let’s see what I can do moving forward.