Jennifer and Alex, 1966, Washington, D.C.
"I believe the light that shines on you will shine on you forever
And though I can't guarantee there's nothing scary hiding under your bed
I'm gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever
And never leave 'til I leave you with a sweet dream in your head."
-- Paul Simon, Father and Daughter
Erma Bombeck wrote, "One day you put your sweater on and your mother's arms come out." This is true for me in many ways, but in times of crisis I put my sweater on and my father's head comes out. I am calm, data-driven and solution-oriented. These traits made me good at crisis communications in the corporate world, and have helped me navigate cancer pragmatically and with little fear.
My earliest memory is of my father raising me up to a light. We lived in Washington, D.C., and in my bedroom there was an old ceiling light with a pink enamel ornament dangling from its center. My greatest joy was to have my father lift me high so that I could touch that pretty bauble and make it swing.
When I mentioned this to my dad he told me that his earliest memory is also of being lifted high to a light by his own father, back on the small farm in upstate New York where he was born and raised.
Dad came a long way from that farm, attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on a New York State Scholarship, and going on to get his Ph.D. in Physics at Yale. He worked for the government in D.C., then as chair of the Electrical Engineering department at Wayne State University in Detroit before coming to California to join the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
When I think of my dad I see his old, wooden desk, cluttered with mechanical pencils, coins, magnets, paper clips and a Mobius strip he had made to illustrate the concept of infinity for me when I was 6 or 7. In those days my dad smoked a pipe, a habit he had taken up to appear more august at Yale, so the desk also housed pouches of tobacco and pipe accessories. One day I thought I would be helpful and tidy things up for him. I arranged his papers in neat stacks and carefully aligned his pencils, slide rule and heavy, black Swingline stapler in parallel rows. When he came home and discovered my handiwork he gently but firmly made it clear that these attentions were unwelcome. The apple did not fall far from the tree in this respect. My husband Harlan shakes his head at the perpetual pile of chaos on my desk, and when the cleaning ladies come I tape a large sign to my monitor: "Please do not clean or move anything here."
My father's study was sacrosanct. The only creature allowed to invade with impunity was our large, white cat, Grover, named for Grover Cleveland because of his long white whiskers and his girth. When we watched TV, Grover would sit on the back of the sofa and wash my dad's hair with his barbed, pink tongue. Dad pretended to complain about the fishy cat breath, but he loved that animal, and Grover's white fur could always be found mingled with eraser dust and pipe tobacco amidst the piles of scientific papers, hastily scribbled notes and old receipts.
Grover on Dad's desk in Detroit, circa 1968
Dad recently turned 81. Sharp as a tack, he still works more than full time as COO of a biomedical start-up. He has the most agile mind I've ever encountered, and his curiosity, humor and breadth of knowledge spur me to bring out my 'A' game in every conversation with him. He and my stepmother live nearby and I am grateful that we see them often.
My dad may no longer be able to hold me in his arms and raise me high, but every day he lifts me in spirit and helps me to see the world through his wise eyes, often in a whole new light.