Our Lives

Our Lives: Fatherhood, Frost and forever

June 15, 2013 

JohnValentine.AL.050213.JEL

John Valentine.

JLEONARD@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — JULI LEONARD

My father turns 95 next month. I want him to live forever.

My editor expects 700 more words, but I said it all in that first line.

Dad lives in one room in a continuing care facility 10 minutes from my home, five minutes from work. He has everything he needs. His nurses and health care staff are fantastic. I’ve been on his hall and seen them handle, with tenderness and directness, excruciating sad and difficult situations.

With a rolling nurse’s cart always close, a full slate of activities scheduled and a white-cloth dining room, Dad is in a safe, well-attended environment. Wheelchairs and walkers slowly pass up and down the hallways. I know he wants more, he tells me so. He wants to go outside, get some ice cream, interact with new people, see old friends from years past, or simply ride in a car with the windows down.

I see him every weekend, take care of the financial stuff. The emotional stuff, I’m less good with that. Sharing an iced coffee, under the trees, surrounded by nature and our loyal dogs, I can do that real well. My father could pat a dog for three hours. He could watch clouds and look up at tree tops all afternoon.

He could string a tennis racket, play the banjo, sing you any song you knew and tell a story about anything on any topic. He loves the New York Times, the cartoons in the New Yorker and “The Cat in the Hat.”

He loved New York City, working there for 30 years. He loved the energy of the city, hated the 90-minute commute. He saw every Broadway show. His company gave him one of the first Apple computers so he could write their history.

He was a card-carrying member of the “Mad Men” generation of dads, with all the benefits and pitfalls. Later, seeing how much I enjoyed weeknight family dinners at home and making my kids’ lunches, he admitted that he was aware of the double standards. But that’s the way it was in the ’60s, living the split-level suburban dream.

Dad loves to share his random encounters with celebrities, just more wonderful anecdotes in his storytelling repertoire. He was and still is very comfortable with an audience. He made a movie with Ronald Reagan, met the Queen Mother twice, and took us to see Bill Bradley play basketball at Oxford when he was a Rhodes Scholar. He had a personal story about Jackie Robinson. He was in awe of talented musicians.

My brother is a professional musician in Santa Fe, N.M. I think the happiest moments of Dad’s creative life in the past 10 years were when the two of them tore through a ragged, raucous version of “Dueling Banjos.”

Not that he was impolite other times. His father was a Southern gentleman from Winston-Salem, after all. But Dad’s eyes would light up when my brother would pick up any instrument.

My father and my mother befriended John Entwhistle, the bass guitarist, and his wife on their honeymoon around the time of The Who’s trip to the Monterey Pop Festival.

One afternoon in central Jersey, a limousine showed up in our suburban driveway. John and Alison were on the East Coast and wanted to spend time with my mom and dad. Really. John played a rough cut of “Tommy” for my brother and me. Alison and my mother exchanged Christmas cards for years.

Dad remembers seeing Babe Ruth hit a home run in Yankee Stadium and hearing Robert Frost reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in Vermont when it was published. He still recites his favorite lines from another Frost favorite, “The Pasture.”

“I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;

… I sha’n’t be gone long. – You come too.”

When he remembers the lines, he gets that faraway look and talks about my mother.

We were sitting around the living room, my sisters and I, sharing stories, faded memories, and irreverent sibling humor about ourselves and our parents. My own truth-or-dare asides ranged from follow-my-lead omnipotence to Debby Downer desperation. One sister burst out laughing, “Who made you the firstborn anyway?”

My recent cum laude college graduate daughter – an observant veteran of these good-natured brother/sister free-for-alls – curled up quietly in the corner, taking it all in, looked at my wife, and added, “I’m just sitting here taking notes.”

It’s Father’s Day for all of us. Us dads, we have so much to be thankful for.

My dad turns 95 next month. I hope he lives forever.

johnvalentine732@gmail.com

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