Day 8: Dad

The other day I got one of the strangest emails I have ever received. “I know this is very heavy,” my oldest brother wrote, “but we need to finish editing dad’s gravestone.” What made this so strange is that my father is still living. Sadly, however, he now spends his days at Vicarage-by-the-Sea, a wonderful memory care facility in Harpswell, Maine that we chose for him when his Alzheimer’s became too difficult to manage at home. One of my go-to lines when helping a student is, “Don’t worry it’s not written in stone.” Yet here I was, having to literally decide what would be etched in stone to remember my dad for eternity.

Even writing this essay while he is still living seems somewhat off. But too often we wait until those we love have left us to tell them how much they truly mean to us. I have read so many incredible tributes on Facebook when friends have lost loved ones. So, I wanted to try my hand at this, but this is HARD and very much a work in progress. 

My dad is a fascinating, complicated man. I remember attending his retirement party at the Delphic Club and hearing stories I’d love to forget. The “seminal sixties” was a phrase that stuck out, and certainly my dad’s love of women has been one of his defining traits. In the spring of 2000, I was walking with my mother and stepfather towards the Deir Mar Musa monastery in Syria. A drunk Christian man accosted us on the path and, after learning that I was Muslim, said that “Islam is wrong because you can have four wives.” Without missing a beat, I replied, “Oh yeah? My dad has had four wives,” and then added under my breath, “just not (exactly) at the same time.” Another go-to line when discussing my family with strangers is that my dad really threw himself into his work…as a divorce lawyer. Indeed, my dad spent his entire professional life as a partner at Choate, Hall, and Stewart in the area of family law. He represented one spouse in many of the most high profile divorces in Boston, and I have lost count of the number of people who have told me, “Your dad did my parent’s divorce.”

I will, however, leave the many stories of my dad’s college and professional life to raconteurs more familiar with these periods (check out this profile by my godfather John Spooner for a start) and instead focus on what he means to me. My parents divorced when I was four, so I have almost no memories of their union. We had a complicated, post-nuclear family structure at the time. Indeed, when people ask me how many siblings I have, I respond, “Between zero and six depending on how you count, but let’s go with three.” To explain, I have two half-brothers from my dad’s first marriage and a half-sister from my mom’s (she has played the multi-spouse game but luckily struck gold with number three). I inherited a step-brother and step-sister, for a time, from dad’s marriage number three. In case that wasn’t complicated enough, my parents fostered a fascinating young woman named Lauren Slater, who has made quite a name for herself as an author and therapist.

Growing up, Thursday evenings were my favorite night of the week because my dad used to take me out to dinner after his woodworking class at Dedham High—I now sleep on one of the beds he made there. My favorite restaurant was Tahiti, although my dad used to torment me by threatening to order the “Suffering Bastard” cocktail, an affront to my straight-edge, abstemious nature. Needling people, or finding that one vulnerability and then using humor to poke and prod at it, is one trait I have unfortunately inherited from my dad. There’s even a name for it: Marshalling.

Museums are the other dominant memory of my childhood. Art has always been my dad’s drug of choice, and nary a weekend went by when he was not bringing me to the MFA, the Fogg, the Sackler, or, his personal favorite the Isabella Stewart Gardener. He loved early Christian art, Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, and the like, because he felt they showed real devotion. Auctions were another obsession with him. I used to love exploring all the pieces at a Skinner auction, and then watching him bid on furniture and paintings. We finally had to take his checkbook away as he was continuing to fill his overstuffed home with art well into his late 70s.

Education was huge for my dad, and neither of my brothers had followed the trail he blazed, so the pressure on me to attend St. Mark’s and Harvard was immense. Even today, in his Alzheimer’s state, one of the ways I can bring him back is to ask about highlights of his time at St. Mark’s or give him nuggets about its current goings-on.

There is so much more to write, and this format is too restrictive to capture the vastness that is Weld Henshaw. I might also add that I have strayed quite a bit from the college essay format in this one. If a student shared this draft with me, I would send it back saying that essays should be about YOU, not someone else. I will conclude with the one part of his gravestone that I like best, the quote that my dad himself chose as the coda for his life:

Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!

–of mountains misty topt!

Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide!

Smile, for your lover comes.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

1,084 thoughts on “Day 8: Dad”

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