My father, born on Houston Street, was the consummate New Yorker: Never in his life had he been patient.
I fear that patience was not something he learned before he died. I doubt if I'll learn it before my death, either.
Our family never considered patience a virtue. Why would we? Patience is for people who don't have enough to do. Patience indicates a lack of imagination. Patience is the minimum wage of virtues: It hangs out, does as little as possible, and still gets rewarded.
For my father, the Third Avenue bus was always too slow. The line at Met Foods never moved fast enough. Even the microwave took so long to heat soup he'd swear at it and mutter, "At least with a pot, you get to stir. You don't just stand around like a moron."
He spent his life rolling his eyes and saying out of the side of his mouth, "C'mon already. I don't have all day."
The photographs of him from his time in the Army Air Force during WWII -- he flew 23 combat missions -- show him sitting around with a bunch of other boys smoking and laughing. He looks happy and anxious.
Stationed in England and in Italy, the backdrop never seems to change.
There are Liberator bombers on the tarmac behind him, the sun is always shining, his curly black hair is slicked back and short, his teeth look very white in his bright smile, but in his eyes, I see a familiar look: He'd rather be in that plane than on the ground. He'd rather get it over with than wait for it. He'd rather be terrified and active than serene and passive. He wasn't a pilot. He was a radio man and a waist-gunner. He never ran the show, but he knew what his part was and he wanted that show to begin. Quiescence was not a talent that he had, even then.
Impatience is something we learned very fast, my brother and I, growing up. We learned to hate red lights, slow talkers, and people standing in front of us. My mother was the only calm one in the family. But since she died very young, her legacy of meekness and forbearance was eclipsed almost instantly by my father's unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. Anybody outside the family was a fool. Pretty much anybody inside the family was one too.
I thought I'd get away with never having to learn patience myself. Even now, when my students at the University of Connecticut tell me I speak too fast during my lectures, I tell them life is short, listen faster.
Secretly, I always felt as if I'd escaped the need to learn patience because I'd avoided having kids. Although I helped raise my two stepsons, I met them when they were young teenagers. They required understanding, a sense of humor, and money for gas. Not having an infant meant I never developed the gentle, self-possessed poise that's necessary to help a child learn to speak, learn to walk, and learn to enter the world. I skipped that part.
But as my father lay dying, the noun "patient" and the adjective "patient" I discovered -- no surprise -- are not merely only etymologically bred from the same root (the Latin present participle pati, to suffer). They hold within them the seeds of what's necessary when dealing with death. When someone you love is a patient, meaning that he is suffering, enduring pain, indignity, and helplessness, the only thing that you can do is find patience in yourself.
Waiting, I discovered, isn't enough.
I've heard a lot of people talk about their regret that life doesn't have a rewind button: You can't go back and undo something foolish or hurtful. But I've always wished time had a fast forward button so that you could skip ahead to the good bits, the exciting times -- time of fruition.
In my teens and 20s, I always wanted a shortcut to the next step. I wanted to finish my education, get a job, get a husband, and arrive, breathless, at my happy ending before anybody else was even off the starting block. For one endless 8-month span, I had a boyfriend in London. I would have pawned my soul for those months simply to evaporate, like a mirage. Instead, I spent my senior year of college tapping my foot and drumming my fingers on the table.
In retrospect, those days were crucial, challenging, and wildly important. One moment stands out with great clarity -- a professor to whom I poured out my woes (himself the embodiment of patience) advised me, "Never wish your life away."
It's what I now tell my students. It's what I remind my friends.
But I'm realizing I never learned the lesson myself. At the end of my father's life, I was standing around like a moron. I loved him and I hated the process of his Parkinson's, his cancer, and his epilepsy (he called the diseases his "trifecta") even though I accepted, as he did, that his was ending.
But he wanted and expected death to be quicker, to happen in a New York minute, and that time of his grave illness was tougher than either of us could have imagined.
Curled like a claw in his hospital bed, unable to move and barely able to speak, I recall a look in my father's eye like the one from those photographs of him at 19. My father, forever the New Yorker, was thinking "C'mon already. I don't have all day." And one day, he didn't.
He would have been 90 this week and I miss him like hell, but he needed to escape the cage that illness had built inside his body. There's no need to yell at anybody or stamp one's feet, or even to howl into the darkness. What good would it do?
And so what I carry from him, like coins in my pocket against the poverty of his loss, is an understanding that all any of us has is whatever is left of the day. And I make the most of it, hay while the sun shines, and I raise a toast to life. And I offer a toast, as well, to the fact of its finishing.
Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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