06/10/2011 05:19 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2011

The First Year: Remembering Dad

My father would be turning 80 just before Father's Day this year. He was never one for Hallmark holidays, and never thought much of Father's Day or his birthday, so we rarely made much of them. Perhaps it was because his 13th birthday was D-Day -- he always maintained that D-Day was far more memorable than a birthday cake.

He died peacefully 18 months ago at the hospital where he'd practiced orthopedics for 35 years. He was cared for by a nurse whom he'd trained and a doctor who was a former colleague and patient. He did it in a two-minute window when none of us was in the room -- a final act of sparing us unpleasantness. We were all there, though, by his bedside for his last days, as he had always miraculously been standing next to us at our sickest and darkest hours.

I think of him a kajillion times a day. Every day. Still.

His childhood, like that of many English people in the 1930s, was an extremely challenging one. Born into the depths of the Depression, his father, a country doctor, performed most of his work for free. Times were desperately lean. Dad was sent away to school when he was seven because his parents wanted a better life for him. Seventy years later he could still barely describe the sadness he felt as the train pulled out of the station and he saw his father on the platform, bent over double, sobbing.

Fortunately, school was a wonderful experience. Despite having to move from barn to barn to avoid the bombings during WWII, his schoolmasters adored teaching and learning, and, nestled amidst the hay bales with the boys late into the night, read Dickens and Scott and Stevenson aloud. When there was a break in the bombing, they'd head up to London to the Albert Hall and listen to music. He always believed that his wasn't a bad wartime gig.

And that's who he was -- the person who was able to find focus on the important and rewarding things around him, and not sweat the things you can't control. He wasn't particularly an optimist, nor was he a Pollyanna positive; he simply believed that in any situation you can choose whether or not you're going to make a contribution, and that the choice of making a contribution is far more likely to result in a good outcome for everyone. Like so many of the immigrants who created this country, he believed that by investing in hard work, family, and public service, he could achieve happiness and opportunity for himself and his children. And he was right.

Watching him struggle in his final years was excruciating for me. The hands that had accomplished so much -- that had patched up countless bodies mangled from car accidents, heads bashed in from falls and collisions, femurs bursting through the skin from bike crashes; that had taught me how to hammer in a nail, mow the lawn, shovel snow, lay a fire, stack wood, feed the lumber into the table saw and hang a door; and that held my son in the delivery room when he was born with deformed feet, and my daughter when she went unconscious to the emergency room -- those same hands fumbled to tie shoes and pick up a cashew. His eyesight failed, his hearing got dodgy, and the feeling in his hands and feet gradually eroded. He got thinner and thinner and thinner.

I still called him for advice on any medical condition that I encountered, but his ability to articulate what to do, much less what day of the week it was, slipped away. I was heartbroken. And terrified. And frustrated. I hated knowing that I was losing him.

And yet, caring for him at the end was as rewarding as anything I've done. The most important gift he gave us is that he made it really easy to be a good child. He was clear about what he wanted from us and beamed when we did it. He believed deeply in us and our capabilities, and never lost his faith in us or questioned our fundamentals. At the end of the day, he wanted us to lead honorable, productive lives, do right by others, and show up for the important things. And we did. Fixing things around the house, putting bright stickers on buttons he needed to push, and, later, feeding him when he could no longer feed himself, was a pleasure, a fleeting opportunity to give back to the man who had given endlessly to me.

It's very rare to be able to say goodbye to a parent with no regrets about how you treated them in life. I was lucky -- my father's clarity and groundedness allowed me to do that. And the wonderful thing about the time and space since his death is that it's allowed me to remember the strength and wisdom he brought to my life, rather than the nightmare world where he was trapped at the end.

Father's Day feels really different when you're losing your father, or have already lost him. It's a time of reflection and consideration of the joys of the past rather than a celebration of the present. Not exactly what Hallmark markets in the greeting card section. But it's lovely in its own way.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. You're still by my side.