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An Unusual Father's Day Gift

06/23/2010 01:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I got a call from my sister a few minutes ago. She was calm and solemn, so I already knew before the words sunk in.

"It's cancer again, isn't it?"

"Yeah" she said.

Long pause. It's growing really fast this time. A new lump grew over night. Four in the past week. Who knows what's going on inside his body. Each minute waiting for the next news, the next doctor to call, the next bit of information ... is an eternity.

Meanwhile, Dad is getting weaker and more tired. Last week, he got on the telephone -- something he rarely does -- and told me how much he loved me. He thanked me for a gift I sent my Mother for Mother's day, and I was ashamed it wasn't more. I knew then he knew how sick he was. I heard in his voice he just needed me to know he loved me, and not to worry. I felt horribly guilty for not being with him. I have spent the last twenty years living one thousand miles away, raising my own family, and missing him almost constantly.

My dad's birthday and Father's Day are both in June, so it is a family tradition to celebrate them in one big celebration of "Dad". This year, his gift from me is a most unusual gift -- a eulogy -- while he is still alive.

I want my Dad to know how much I love him. I want the world to know how wonderful he is, while he can still read this. What good will a eulogy be if Dad won't be around to hear it? I want him to know how much I respect him, and how fortunate I am to be his daughter. I want him to know his lessons weren't wasted, his tireless work was appreciated, and his memory will always be cherished. There's so much to say, and not much time to say it. How do you put a whole lifetime of love into one letter, especially when your father is more legend than human?

Dad,

I want you to know the kind of stories I will be telling about you. Words won't ever do justice to the kind of man you are -- the kind of hero you've been to so many people. I don't know if I can say enough to honor you, but I will try. Here goes:

My Dad was not like Ward Cleaver, or Mike Brady, or John Walton, or any of the iconic television fathers of my youth. His fingernails were never clean, he drank too much, he smoked too much, and he cursed -- way too much. Like the fathers on television, I never saw my Dad drink a martini, steer a sailboat, or attend a business meeting in a suit.

It wasn't until I was grown and putting myself through college that my dad ever took a real vacation, and when he did, his sheer joy was a beautiful sight to observe. "Do you know they have a bathtub in that hO-tel in Florida (emphasizing the first syllable instead of the last), that your mother and I can both fit into together, and when you turn it on, little bubbles come up?" You'd think he just won a million dollars when he discovered the hot tub.

Working a full-time job at the Chrysler plant from 6am - 3pm everyday meant my father came home dirty, sweaty and exhausted. Mom served dinner at 4pm in their tiny kitchen, for Dad and all nine of us kids (when my youngest brother and sister were born, the oldest two were out of the house or working). There weren't enough seats at the table, so we ate in two shifts. Then, Dad would go out into the garage to start his second job -- fixing cars for anyone and everyone. Sometimes he was paid; more often he was not. Dad had the biggest heart in all of the mid-west.

I didn't realize when I was a kid that it was unusual to have a "grease pit" in your back yard. A grease pit is a large rectangular hole, about five feet deep, where mechanics climb down the stairs and can reach up and fix a car from the underside while looking straight up. When I think of how many thousands of hours my Dad spent in that position, I can't believe his back and his neck held out. He must have been aching all the time. One day, my Dad found a rodent in the grease pit, and asked me if I ever saw a mouse with no tail. "A hamster", I cried! I had "Peanuts" the hamster (?) as my pet for about a year.

Dad grew up in a rural town in northern Michigan during the depression, with thirteen brothers and sisters. To this day, there is still an argument about how many siblings were stillborn or died as infants, but we know fourteen made it to adulthood. Grandpa loved his family but drank too much, and Grandma was deeply religious. The kids grew up dirt poor, but as close and loving as any family I have ever seen.

My Dad had an accident when he was about twelve years old which left him legally deaf for the rest of his life. The next door neighbor, a country Sheriff, was "a drunk", according to my Dad. Dad says the neighbor's horse got out, was in their yard, and my Dad returned it to its own yard. The cop saw my Dad move the horse and came over and beat him badly, boxing his ears until they bled. Dad's been deaf ever since.

In the late 1940's, there was no Title IX or Education for All Handicapped Children Act, yet. If you were poor and had a disability, you were pretty much out of luck. Being only twelve, there was no special help for my father. School and life, after that point, must have been Hell. Fortunately, my Dad was smart, resourceful, knew how to network, and was full of charm. My father learned not only how to survive on his own talents, but helped feed his family, as well. Somehow, Dad managed to complete the eleventh grade, despite not hearing most of what the teacher said.

Dad once told me he sold fudge on the streets as a kid on Mackinac Island. His other most-frequent story about Mackinac Island was when his uncle was crushed by a boat on the dock. The Uncle's job was to reach over, grab the boats as they came in, and tie them to the dock. One boat was just a little farther than the reach of his uncle's arm, and he slipped in, crushing and/or drowning him. I've always had a healthy respect for standing back on a dock after hearing that story.

When my dad was 16 years old, he lied and said he was 18 to get a job working on the assembly line at General Motors in Flint, MI. Smart as a whip, Dad figured out how cars worked, just by playing around with them and watching other people do their work. It wasn't long before he learned a highly skilled trade -- "Tool and Die". With a good job and union benefits, he then married the proper church-going schoolgirl down the street, my mother. The "tool and die" trade supported our entire family, allowing my parents to raise nine children in a house of their own just outside of Detroit, with a used car for each of the children as they attained their sixteenth birthday.

A Psychologist friend told me once the blue-collar occupation that requires the highest IQ is "Tool and Die". That didn't surprise me at all. My Dad is the most creative person I know. When my oldest son was an infant, the umbrella-style stroller I was using, broke. An hour later, my Dad had fashioned a new piece for it in his garage using a can opener, and it worked beautifully. I kid you not.

My Dad could fix anything. He built houses with his bare hands. He dug wells. He could fix any car ever made. He cut down huge trees, built brick walls, put on roofs, dug gardens and poured foundations. He painted houses, put in insulation, leveled fields, built garages, and chopped thousands of cords of wood. He was like Hercules.

When my dad was injured, he was hesitant to go to the doctor if it was something he could fix himself. He cut off the tip of his thumb once, and sewed it back on with his other hand. He pulled his own teeth by tying strings to them and slamming a door. He swallowed a metal pop-tab from a can once, and drove himself to the hospital with it still stuck in his throat. When the emergency room attendant asked him for information, he opened up his mouth and vomited blood on her desk.

My childhood is full of memories of people telling me how tough, or how great my Dad was. "Your Dad is stronger than an ox", one friend said. "Three men tried to pull out that tree stump from the ground and gave up, and your Dad was able to do it all by himself."

Or, "I took that car to every mechanic in town and they told me to 'junk it'. Your Dad took one look at it and said, 'I can fix this'". And he did.

My Dad had a special place in his heart for wayward teens -- perhaps because his own childhood was filled with so much adversity. He always told us, "There is no such thing as a bad kid -- only a kid who lost his way." I came home from school some days to see half the teenage boys in town hanging out with my Dad in the garage. He taught them how to change oil and tires, re-build transmissions, replace engines, drink beer, tell dirty jokes (never around women, of course!) and play poker. Many boys in town looked up to my Dad and loved him as a father-figure.

Being the mentor for troubled working-class youth wasn't always easy. Once, every tool he owned was stolen out of his garage. Another time, I remember laying in my bed at night and hearing loud "bangs". Bob Newhart was on television. The next day, I learned a drunken teenager shot holes into our garage, and holes into tires of cars up and down the entire street. Dad knew who it was immediately. According to my father, he had helped the teen fix his car, and when he couldn't repay my Dad for the parts, Dad held his ground. "When you pay for the parts, you can have your car back." The shots were a rebellious, "Screw you" to my dad for making him responsible.

The young man was arrested, and the Judge, who knew my Dad as a colorful character and good citizen asked, "Well George, what should we do with this kid? Jail?" My dad asked the judge to give the kid options to turn his life around. Thirty years later, the young man has had a successful career in the military, has married, raised a family, and calls my dad, "Sir".

We had cousins, neighbors, and friends from high school live with us in their relatively-small house from time-to-time. (My Dad added an upstairs and an addition over the years to accommodate his growing "family".) My poor mother was always stressed trying to figure out how to feed so many people. I remember one of the young men, thrown out of his house by his parents, who came to stay with us for a summer. I remember my Dad giving him "the talk" over dinner.

"Cut your hair. Stay in school. Say 'Yes, ma'am' and 'no, sir'. Touch one of my daughters and you'll find yourself on the wrong end of my rifle. Get a part-time job. Help out whenever I tell you. Talk back to my wife and you're out the door. Any questions?"

Dad's generosity knew no limits. Much to my mother's dismay, if he had five dollars in his pocket, he gave his friends four. My dad shoveled snow for elderly people all over town, gave rides to people he didn't know, planted flowers for neighbors, helped strangers stranded on the side of the road, and lent what little he had to anyone and everyone in need. My mother was constantly telling him, "You can't keep giving away everything we have, George! We have to feed our own kids, you know!"

Like biblical loaves and fishes, the more my Dad gave away, the more we received. Christmas-time meant plates and plates of delicious cookies from every ethnic background you can imagine. Clothes were handed down to us by neighbors and friends. My first exposure to upper middle-class privilege was the two weeks I went away to summer camp, the gift of one of our family friends. My sister and I took our first plane ride in college (to California) using airline tickets my dad received for buying a truck. One of my first cars, a gigantic Dodge Polara, was the product of a barter my Dad made with a friend.

My Dad had a sense of adventure and a willingness to do the impossible. On long trips, he always tried to beat his previous "best time", peeing in old milk jugs or coffee cans along the way. The first thing he would say to me when I walked in the door after driving back from college was, "How long did it take?" I always told him the same thing -- 50 minutes -- and he always told me he could do it in less.

In the late 1980's, he received the gift of a caption box for his television that changed his world. He could now read what people were saying on television, and suddenly, the world of pop-culture was his. He loved that box.

I was visiting my Dad once when his caption box broke. He took it apart, but one of the pieces was broken. My mother called the manufacturer and was told the missing piece would have to be shipped from Baltimore, and it would take at least a week to get it to Detroit. "A week?" my Dad asked angrily. He started putting on his shoes and grabbed his keys. It was very late at night.

My Mom asked, "Where do you think you're going?"

"To Baltimore", he replied.

"It's 600 miles!", my mother shouted.

"I better get a cup of coffee first, then" he said. "I plan on being there in the morning." And off he went.

Dad knew no fear. He took us kids sledding down the scariest hills we could find, and often rode on the back of the toboggan. We went to the lake in northern Michigan, and he let us swim right after eating, despite my mother's admonitions that we should wait. On the way home, he drove the hills of northern Michigan as fast as he could, Mom's face turning green, as we all giggled, "Weee! Faster!"

My dad loved children and often said he wanted a "baker's dozen" of them. My mother's patience wore out before her body did. She put her foot down at nine. Raising nine children was a tough job for any woman, and when my mother was annoyed at my father, she let him know. He had a charming way of disarming her at times with his humor, and no matter where he stood with her on a given day, he called her "Hon" (short for honey).

Dad did everything he could to make childrens' lives magical. When I was a kid, he loved to take us driving around the suburbs of Detroit looking at Christmas lights. Each year, he put a plywood Santa Claus up on our own roof, complete with the sled and all of the reindeer. I couldn't wait to get home from school to see it up there. After I married and converted to Judaism, he painstakingly drilled a hole in the stems of dozens of tiny dreidles and used them to decorate his Christmas tree. I didn't have the heart to tell him that was not how they were used.

I brought my kids back to Michigan about ten years ago for the winter holidays, and when we arrived, their eyes lit up like the fourth of July. My dad had shoveled snow from his own driveway and walkway and from the neighbor's yards, and put it in his backyard. With it, he built a huge ramp for sledding, not far from the window where he could watch them have fun all day. It looked like he spent days building it. My kids were thrilled.

The best part about my father was his tremendous sense of humor that endeared him to everyone he met. He had many surgeries in his lifetime, and was on the frequent-flier program at their area hospital. He always flirted with the nurses, inviting them to try out the bed with him, or asking them to put a mixed drink into his IV bag. Everyone knew him and loved him there. I always felt bad for the other patients because my Dad had many visitors, and they were usually laughing.

My kid's recall a time when they were riding in a car with my dad, and as he approached someone else's car that he knew, he rolled down the window and stuck up his middle finger, just to get a laugh. Another time, after watching a commercial where a man drove by another car and said to the stranger driving it, "Ask me about my cholesterol", my Dad had an idea. The next time he drove his car, he said to the driver in the car next to him, "I wear pull-ups" (his word for Depends adult diapers). My kids howled with laughter. We love seeing Grandpa!" they would tell me. "He is so inappropriate!"

I would like to tell you Dad was as enlightened on all social issues as he was generous, but that was not always the case. My Dad was tough, rigid and kind of scary when I was young. He did not approve of pre-marital sex, homosexuality, immodest clothing, gender equality and much more -- and he was not afraid to tell everyone he knew how he felt about them. He had been raised in a religious household, and although he did not attend church himself, he valued it.

As my Dad got older and spent fewer hours working, he started reading the newspaper regularly, watching news on television and engaging in friendly debate with anyone he could. (Dad read lips, so as long as you were looking at him, he could have a conversation.) His political and social views changed as inter-racial marriages, single-parent families, gay rights, and other issues crept into the daily reality of his friends and family. He was challenged to re-examine his own beliefs, and wasn't afraid to admit when he changed his mind.

When I saw my dad a few months ago, he was in the hospital, gasping for breath from COPD. We were talking about the challenges faced by someone we both love deeply, who happens to be a lesbian. My dad, sensing his own mortality, asked, "If you ever see anyone giving her shit about being a lesbian, you'll kick their ass for me, won't you?" We both laughed. I would, I agreed.

My Dad was proud of his family and talked about them endlessly. He had a wallet the size of Texas filled with graduation photos. If you asked my dad, his nine kids and nearly thirty grandchildren and several great-grandchildren were the smartest, most accomplished people on this Earth. "They all turned out great!" he'd brag to anyone who would listen.

My parents have a wall in their home of all of their "kids" -- lots of cousins and friends and neighbors they love like family, and who love them back. Each time I visit, I read the backs of photos or holiday letters starting, "Dear Grandpa". Sometimes I have no idea who the people are in the photos.

When I think of the sheer number of people my Dad's life has touched, and how many people he has inspired and educated and made to laugh, I am in awe.

My dad taught us all so many things. Among them:

  • Love your spouse, no matter how much you fight with him/her. Stick with him/her until the end, no matter what.

  • Love your kids, but give them rules and boundaries. "Ride their asses" when they need it, and tell them you love them every single day. Don't be afraid to throw them out on the street to make a point. They'll thank you later.

  • Try new things. There is no such thing as failure. Eventually, you'll get the hang of whatever it is you've set out to do.

  • Stay connected to your extended family -- out of love, not just obligation.

  • Don't give up on people. Believe in them after they've stopped believing in themselves.
  • People can change. Sometimes you just have to "love them through it", whatever "it" is.
  • Work hard.

  • Don't fall for bullshit.

  • Tell the truth.

  • Help people who can't help themselves.

  • Share yourselves with others, and others will share themselves with you.

  • Say hello to everyone you meet.

  • Call every woman beautiful, whether she is or not. (Your wife won't mind if she knows you love her best of all.)

  • Never stop learning.

  • Giving is its own reward. Give of yourself until it ... feels good.

Don't take yourself too seriously.

  • And once in awhile, reward yourself with a romp in a hot tub with your honey. Don't forget to turn on the bubbles.

I love you, Dad.

**************************************

Author's Note: My father, George Cronk, died June 24, 2010 at Beaumont Hospital Hospice. He kept the staff laughing almost until the very end.