“If you have your health, you have everything you need,” Dad said.
He looked fit, played golf, and smoked Lucky Strikes like the doctors in Life Magazine ads and the other men in Mexico, Missouri in the 1950s, but he was often too sick to get out of bed. My mother grew quiet then and cooked him special foods. She blinked and cleared her throat too often.
“I remember when your dad had rheumatic fever when we were kids,” Uncle Jim told me many years ago. “We plowed furrows next to each other, walking behind our horses. I’d get to the end of the row and wait for him to catch up.” Uncle Jim wiped his eyes. “He was a year and a half older. He had been the strong one, but after the fever, he was never the same.”
“Let’s go on a breakfast picnic before it gets too hot,” Dad said on August mornings. If the night was steamy, it was “Let’s take a ride.” He didn’t focus on destination or task. Just the pleasure of wind on our sweaty faces. I sat in the back seat of Dad’s latest white Chrysler with Mom in the passenger seat, my brother Jim at the other back window, and our terrier Amigo on my lap. We held our faces, arms, and paws out the windows. Amigo gulped air while his little brown ears quivered in the wind.
Afterward, Dad took us to A&W where leggy high school girls served root beer in frosted glass mugs. Even if he felt too sick to eat, he ordered chili hot dogs for everyone else.
“Good health is all that really matters.” (I’ll save the discussion about health and chili-dogs for another time.) For Dad, health meant well enough to get out of bed and do something with family. He knew it depended on his attitude before that idea was in style. He died at forty-four, but didn’t waste a minute complaining. He ran his company Mexico Building Products, rested in the afternoon, and enjoyed what he could.
“Why don’t you come down to the lake tomorrow afternoon?” a friend asked last week.
“I don’t have time.” I said, bored with my own words. “I need to work on an abstract for a presentation, and I can’t figure it out.” It was a good excuse, a real excuse, but was an abstract more important than spending time with my friend?
I asked Inner Dad what to do.
“Be with friends and take Willow for a swim. We can’t count on good days or more days, so go.”
After throwing sticks off the dock in the rain, I sat inside with my friend and her family. Her husband told me about an article he’s writing about the effect of collective grief on art and architecture following the industrial revolution and world wars. While rain drummed on the roof, I told my friends about the obstinate abstract and my thoughts about the lessons of grief. The ideas I needed flowed. When I got home, I wrote the abstract. The next morning, I read it over and sent it off.
The unconscious needed to simmer rather than be forced. I also remembered how much I like figuring things out in conversation.
“Try spontaneity once in a while,” Inner Dad said with a smile and a puff of white smoke. “Don’t assume you’ll be here tomorrow. The essential things get done. Pleasure doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just show up without your list.”
For more about what I learned from my father and his illness, see Why We Need Hospice Help with Bereavement and End of Life Issues. I also suggest Best Practices for Optimal Productivity and Creativity by Jeffrey Davis in Psychology Today.