There are so many kinds of deaths — some tragic, some a relative blessing. Living a full, long life is a blessing. Nonetheless, saying goodbye to a parent is nothing short of unspeakably hard. I feel pain like I have never experienced before. Moments of sadness hit randomly throughout the day. It is difficult to express in words who my Dad was since he most powerfully spoke through his actions.
My father gave me advice on how to live by showing me how to live. He was not the kind of person who said, “Do as I say, not as I do.” He just did. And I was there to watch. And watch, I did. I watched his example. He was the person who made me want to do what he did, even as he said little.
There were so many words that could describe my Dad. Many I’ve heard from friends and family over the past few weeks:
As my siblings and I talked over the last week, we came to these three words to describe our Dad:
The story I share below exemplifies all three of these qualities, but especially patience, through something he loved most — sailing.
It’s hard to be in the world without my Dad, but I am grateful for the time we had together, for what he taught me, and that he was my Dad.
Dad taught me the basics of sailing:
- Wind Direction
- Sail Trim
Whenever I got on the boat, Dad would review these.
Every sailboat has two short pieces of colored fabric on the mainsail. They tell you where the wind is over the sail. There is also a wind direction indicator at the top of the mast; in Dad’s case, a 23-foot sloop named Timpani.
Whenever we were sailing, he would randomly ask me, “What is the wind doing?” He never said a lot. He might even just look up at the sails or the top of the mast as a signal for me to do the same.
With this strategy, he taught me how to steer. Even when there were a lot of other boats out on the water, he showed me how to calmly and patiently maneuver through boat traffic. Trimming the sail was the most challenging for me. I would often “luff” the sail, making it flap in the wind. Every single time I did this, my Dad exemplified patience. With a smile on his face — and sometimes a laugh — he watched me steer the boat back into the wind.
I might yell, “Dad, take the tiller!” He wouldn’t take the tiller, of course. He knew that we wouldn’t capsize and that to learn, I needed to do it myself.
Over the last few years, I started taking sailing classes in one of the most challenging places to sail in the world: San Francisco Bay. He was happy about that. He long had a dream to sail there himself.
I still remember the day we sailed there with him.
The winds were blowing at 20 knots. There was a small craft advisory. It was a typical day on the Bay. Even at 85 years old, my Dad couldn’t wait to get on the boat. He knew that our big boat could handle those big conditions. He confidently stepped onto the 41-foot sloop, put on the self-inflating life jacket like it was his, and figured out which direction the wind was blowing.
He first wanted to watch me as the skipper — checking my helmsmanship and my sail trim. He didn’t say anything, so I think I did a pretty good job.
And then he took the wheel…and wouldn’t let go! His hands were glued to that wheel. He was on a port tack for a while when we realized a shift of direction was needed.
“Dad,” I said, “we need to tack.”
He said, “Just a little bit longer — we have such great wind.”
“Dad — this isn’t Lake Mendota. We are in the San Francisco Bay. These are normal conditions!”
We finally tacked and then entered a part of the Bay with even stronger winds and heeled over quite a bit. He saw that I looked concerned. He smiled and just turned back into the wind.
After changing direction again, I was having trouble with a knot for a line off a sail. Without saying a word, my father used his knee to steer the big boat while he showed me, for the hundredth time, how to do a bowline knot. Not once did he say, “You still don’t remember?!”
That was a day I will never forget.
Over the last few months, my father, a man of few words, was speaking even more rarely. He was having more difficulty with his speech. One of the last times I saw him, he was expressing a need to say something to me — a way to connect with me more — but couldn’t get the words out. I had to catch a plane and was giving him a big hug, but he looked frustrated about something he felt to be important to get out. He started to stutter.
“What dad?” I said, desperately wanting to hear what he had to say to me. I leaned in a little closer.
Softly, with much effort but a grin on his face, he said, “Don’t sink the boat.”
And that was everything.