Lessons learned late in life

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By El­iz­a­beth Heubeck

ow’d that look?” asked my dad, pant­ing slightly, water bead­ing off his nose, when he reached the op­po­site end of the 25-meter pool.

After at­tend­ing an aquat­ics demon­stra­tion at the re­tire­ment com­mu­nity where my par­ents had re­cently moved, my fa­ther de­cided he wanted to learn how to swim prop­erly. Grow­ing up, he’d en­gaged in the sink-or-swim method of swim­ming lessons. Now, decades later, he was ready to im­prove his stroke. “If I’m going to do this, I want to do it the right way,” he said em­phat­i­cally.

My fa­ther’s as­ser­tion came as no sur­prise; he’d al­ways been a stick­ler for per­fec­tion. When I was a kid, this trait made him come across as a gruff, hard-to-please fa­ther—stereo­typ­i­cal of the ’70s and ’80s, an era when few par­ents, it seemed, hov­ered over their chil­dren or praised their ev­ery act.

In fact, I don’t ever re­mem­ber my fa­ther com­pli­ment­ing me as a kid. When I played on an otherwise all-boys’ soc­cer team in mid­dle school, rather than con­grat­u­late me for bravely shar­ing the field with a pack of ag­gres­sive ado­les­cent males, he asked me when I was going to score a goal. (I never did.) When re­port cards came home, even when I was pleased with my per­for­mance, my dad never seemed sat­is­fied. “I’d like to see some more A’s,” I re­mem­ber him say­ing after re­view­ing one re­port card of which I was par­tic­u­larly proud.

My fa­ther soft­ened with age, and over the years our re­la­tion­ship deep­ened. Re­cently he started to re­flect on his own child­hood, per­haps in­ad­ver­tently of­fer­ing clues about why he raised his own five chil­dren as he did.

My fa­ther’s par­ents came to the U.S. from Poland with very few re­sources. His fa­ther worked in a sci­ence lab­o­ra­tory keeping it cleaned and stocked; his mother, as a house­keeper. But they managed to pro­vide him with ed­u­ca­tional and cul­tural op­por­tu­ni­ties. By the time he was in high school, my fa­ther was an ac­com­plished clar­inetist who some­times per­formed with the Columbia Univer­sity Orches­tra. In his later years, he talked of his pas­sion for the in­stru­ment, of the heady ex­pe­ri­ence that came with per­form­ing at a high level, and of his youth­ful de­sire to make the clar­inet his pro­fes­sion.

“But,” my fa­ther told me, “My teacher al­ways said: ‘You have to be bet­ter than the best.’ ”

My fa­ther in­ter­preted his teacher’s mes­sage to mean that he wasn’t good enough. Sub­se­quently, after high school, he chose to pur­sue a “prac­ti­cal” ca­reer in en­gi­neer­ing, plac­ing his beloved clar­inet in its case and al­low­ing a coat of dust to rest atop it.

So here we were, my fa­ther and I, at the shal­low end of the pool, al­most 70 years after his dream of becoming a pro­fes­sional clar­inetist had gone un­ful­filled. It felt like the per­fect way to spend time to­gether. I love the water and had taught swim lessons as a teenager. He was an ea­ger stu­dent and, as I would soon learn, a ca­pa­ble one. De­men­tia may have made my fa­ther wear his swim trucks back­wards and for­get where the pool en­trance was, but once he made it into the water, he was laser-fo­cused on the task at hand. He lis­tened in­tently as I said, “OK, re­mem­ber to get your el­bows up. Breathe to the side. And look at the black line at the bot­tom of the pool to stay straight.”

Then, as I watched with won­der, my 89-year-old fa­ther took a deep breath, stared at the op­po­site end of the pool, pushed off the wall as hard as he could, and swam — in strong freestyle form — to the other side.

“That looked great!” I beamed when he came up for air.

He did a few more laps that day be­fore we called it quits. It was a Thurs­day af­ter­noon. I planned to come back for an­other les­son the fol­low­ing Thurs­day af­ter­noon, and the one after that. But life doesn’t al­ways go as planned. The fol­low­ing Thurs­day, I sat in a hos­pi­tal room and wit­nessed my fa­ther pass from this earth. Though heavy with sad­ness, I also felt a pro­found sense of peace. I’d suc­ceeded in help­ing my fa­ther achieve the last goal he’d set. He’d been so proud of him­self and, I dare­say, of me, too.

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