This one’s for my dad, who died twelve years ago.
There’s an expression: “You can’t paint the air.”
It means nobody can do the impossible. I think my grandfather might have made it up. I’ve never come across it anywhere else, so I’ll give him credit for it. He was a painter by trade, and was known to say this often to his son, my father. As a first generation immigrant of Irish and English heritage, shaped by the Depression, he’d trot out the line whenever he thought my dad was getting uppity ideas about life. Nope, life was hard, you worked hard, you drank hard, and then you died. At least in my grandfather’s version.
My father would prove his father wrong on more than one occasion. In fact, his life would become a study in air painting.
One of the first times I recall learning how to paint the air with my father, it was actually quite literal. I was eleven. My parents had just bought a 300-year-old house. There wasn’t a lot of money in those days so we all pitched in on the renovation project.
With my two brothers sanding the wide-board floors downstairs, a thick dust wafted through the whole house, floating suspended in the window light. My father and I were painting the upstairs hallway, and the spray from the rollers hung in the air until it was absorbed by the dust, turning it into a fine white mist that coated our skin. So, we did indeed “paint the air” that day. It was a day that would be a turning point in my life in more ways than one.
My father was my mentor, my friend, my wise spiritual guide. I’ve always known I was incredibly lucky to be able to say that, because I know how rare this is. But my father earned this admiration–day after day. I had the most extraordinary experience of watching him continue to learn and grow, and strive for goodness and excellence, right up until he died. I grew up with a man who routinely did the impossible, with a real down-to-earth approach.
I came to believe that I, too, could do the impossible. My father was a patient teacher and cheerleader who encouraged me to find my own way. I’ve done many things that fly in the face of social convention, and Ive accomplished much with the odds stacked against me. Each time, it was with the blessings of my father; he seemed to always know what was right for me.
For instance, I dropped out of college at 20 and started my own business. Friends chided my father for not forcing me to stay in school. He replied that I was too smart to stay in school. I was quickly making enough money to more than comfortably support myself, working three days a week.
When I happily remained single until well into my 30’s, friends commented that I was probably going to be a spinster. My father countered that he’d rather have a daughter who was a happy spinster than an unhappy wife. I married when I knew that I had found a love that would last me a lifetime.
In my father’s eyes, there was little I could do wrong. There was no way I could ever fail or disappoint him. He loved me unconditionally. He made it possible for me to believe I could do just about anything with my life.
I think I must have come out of the womb utterly smitten with my dad. He had this secret weapon–his laugh. He had the greatest laugh. He’d throw his head back, his eyes would crinkle up and disappear, and he’d let loose this throaty chuckling sound, which somehow had the effect of pulling his shoulders up to his ears. It was completely contagious.
My dad did all the great things a dad is supposed to do with his kids. We played games together, went on hikes, built forts, and, evenings, he snuggled with us on the couch while we watched TV. His way of greeting us when he came home from work was to pull coins out of our ears and give them to us for our piggy banks.
That’s not what made him special. What made him special was how thoughtful he was about everything he did. When he was with you, he was really with you, and not mentally off somewhere else. He knew how to listen, get to the heart of the matter, and make things right.
When I was ten, we moved twice in one year. It unseated me. We went from a development with lots of great families and friends, to the country with few neighbors and even fewer kids. The change made me feel generally lost. I spent the year locked away in my room with my nose in a book.
I remember coming home one day from school and being surprised to find my father sitting in the living room. Before I had a chance to ask him why he was home so early, he asked me to go upstairs to get him his slippers. I thought it an odd request, because my father didn’t wear slippers. I hadn’t had a great day at school, and just wanted to go hide in my room, but I did as he asked and went up the stairs.
My parents’ bedroom door was closed, which should have been the second clue. When I opened the door, tears of joy and unimaginable gratitude instantly flooded down my cheeks. The sheer motion of her whirligig tail seemed to magically propel her toward me. I knelt down to catch her as she vaulted up into my arms and washed my face with kisses. I wrapped my arms around my very own dog.
I yelled to my father downstairs, “THANK YOU! Thank you. I love her and I can tell she loves me.”
But I needn’t have yelled, because he’d stolen up the stairs behind me. He was standing in the doorway now, wiping a tear from his eye.
My father had taken a day off from work, even though he needed to give his new business everything he had to get it off the ground. He felt it was more important to drive five hours to bring me home the perfect dog.
This was only one of many life-changing moments my father gave to me.
To say that my father was loving and thoughtful is to say a lot and not nearly enough. The few anecdotes I’ve shared can be multiplied by thousands. He loved me in a way that was extraordinary and special, but, really, this was just the kind of man he was.
I miss my father beyond description; that will never change. But his lessons and love live on in my heart. And as I teach my daughter the way my father taught me, theyre beginning to live on in her heart. So it is that Cait and I have picked up where my dad and I left off — together, we continue to paint the air.