By Kelly Foster
My father’s had one of those years—the ones people frequently compare metaphorically with the suffering of Job—one series of extraordinary hardships after the other—major career changes, my mother’s devastating illness, a new two-hour-per-day commute, a complete upheaval in all that was settled and familiar, even the recent death of our beloved 16-year old cat—all this while trying to complete his dissertation after several exhausting years in school, regularly staying up late and waking up too early to get all these done.
He’s had a tough year.
It’s almost Father’s Day as I write this, and we celebrated a bit early this year. Tomorrow I leave for Africa for several weeks, and I have no idea where I will be when Sunday rolls around.
My father loves Africa, and has been there many times. I’ve heard him speak of it so much, I already feel that the names are somehow personally familiar: Ngong, Addis, Kampala, Nairobi. Tonight, he brought me his treated mosquito net for hanging over my bed. I shared with him some rhubarb juice, Minnesota blueberry and wild rice summer sausage, and Wisconsin aged Extra Sharp Cheddar, all souvenirs from my most recent trip up North.
My father loves to travel in general, and I think if he had his druthers, there’d always be some trip up on the horizon to plan—a manila folder of highlighted itineraries—shot records, passport copies, CDC regulations, must-see places— sitting on his edge of the dining room table where he and my mother sit to read and pray every morning.
While his planning verges on the compulsive (I have every reason to expect he will call me tomorrow to make sure I have not forgotten my passport and shot records), I have always appreciated (if sometimes begrudgingly) the fact that my father cared enough to ask me questions like that.
Just as he used to go through the house when we were young and make sure that everyone had a toothbrush with toothpaste on it sitting on the sink, ready to go. Just as he still sets out a third coffee mug for me every time I come home to visit when he prepares the following morning’s coffee the night before.
My parents’ entire home has become filled over the years with treasures from his travels—a Red Crescent from his relief tent in Iran, a painting of an Ethiopian Warka tree on top of the mantel, a picture of himself smiling atop Machu Picchu, candlesticks from Holland, bibles from Israel and Greece, coffee from Belize, carved runga walking sticks, and so on. The whole house has proliferated with his accumulated travel.
He has always read Outside Magazine and National Geographic in all its various incarnations. Always there’s a copy of both sitting beside his bed, waiting for him to settle in for the evening with his reading glasses and his trusty sleep apnea machine, the CPAP.
If I had to pick the quality that I most admire about my father, not in the detached way one usually admires things when they are making lists, but in the more concrete relational way one gets to admire things about the people they’ve always known and seen on their best and worst days, then I would have to say I admire my father’s buoyancy—his consistent ability to endure suffering, to bear the suffering of others, and then to keep coming back, to keep showing up.
This year has come the closest I’ve seen to damaging my father’s spirit in some frighteningly permanent way, and yet, he keeps resurfacing.
My dad’s job has always been difficult—he’s worked in Community Mental Health for almost thirty years, and when you do that in the poorest region of the poorest state in America, you have to deal with some devastating realities. Just this afternoon, he had to deliver some incredibly difficult news to one of his clients. And yet, after work, he was able to put that down, talk to my mother and I, laugh with us, make us laugh, and then talk with us about the next few days with a sense of hope and purpose.
When I was young, and had a bad day, I could always count on my father to make me laugh at the end of it, and some grim days that was the only spot of light I could count on. We’d go for walks with my mom and my brothers. We’d go for bike rides, and my dad would make up stories about a family of Cavemen, and we’d giggle. We’d go to the park and he’d make up songs and do silly dances while we swung—“Get out of my Face, Horse-Apple” being a perennial favorite.
He still sings oldies around the house with a sort of signature dance on one leg, contorting his face into its best Rock N’Roll guitar manifestation—“Hot Town, Summer in the City” and “House of the Rising Sun” being two of the more frequent on his hit list. He now also does a very convincing elephant and/or Jacob Marley as he dons the CPAP.
I can know one thing because of my father—wherever he travels, wherever I travel, wherever we make our homes, however far apart we are—I will always know who I am, I will always come back to the best of my self, because he has been in my life. I may forget many things, but I will not forget that.
Our family crest bears the motto “Si Fractus Fortis,” which means, “Though broken, yet brave.” It may be brave to wield a sword. It may be brave to stand before a charging animal.
But it is more than brave to stay in the lives of all who surround you—however poor, however oblivious, however miserable, however banal or repetitive—and to keep staying—to stay with vigor and presence and humor and joy.
That’s my brave father, and I wish him a good day. I wish him all the good days to come.