Lessons learned late in life
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.