Saturday, May 2, 2015

He taught me a lot, my dad

My dad died suddenly last week. It was a strange and unexpected loss. We had been losing him slowly
Billy circa 1931
to Alzheimer’s, and in some ways it was as if he were already gone, yet he wasn’t. He was still having coffee in the morning, enjoying an afternoon walk, posing for goofy photos. Mostly he just shuffled around in a fog, fidgeting with doors.
     Dad taught me many things, for better or worse. He took me to Mutiny on the Bounty – the brutal, 1935 version with Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh. I was 7, and terrified, but it was a cinematic tour de force and he figured it wouldn’t come around again (he was right). Around the same time, he dropped me on my head and knocked a tooth out during our bedtime ritual, which I loved: he would throw me over his shoulder and grab my ankles to carry me upstairs to bed. That time he just missed the grab. Some say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He always said, “Tears before night fall.” He also said I had to eat a peck of dirt before I died.
Out on Crystal Lake with me and
with his other baby, Charlie (1967)
and with Rose & Ryder in Lake Huron (2002).
     He was a lifelong outdoor enthusiast. Up north in Michigan he swam in Lake Huron every day as soon as the ice was gone in Spring. Swimmer, hiker, sailor, cycler, he rode his bicycle to work and was once clocked going 60 mph downhill on the way home. When there was too much snow, he would cross-country ski to work. In kindergarten I rode to school perched on the bar of his bike – no helmet, no child seat (not at 60 mph).
      He taught me to skate when I was two, on an ice patch he made in the backyard. Later he was proud that I was faster than the boys I
played hockey with and just as tough. He made me learn to drink a Manhattan and a martini, because he didn’t want me “falling off my bar stool” if some guy ever tried to take advantage of me (ah, for the days before Rohypnol). And just in case, he taught us the self-defense trick ‘death of the ragdoll’ (ask me about that one sometime).
     In a big winter storm, the snow too deep for cars, we would hike our Flexible Flyers up and fly half a mile down the streets on our sleds, through pristine piles of white, clouds of snowflakes glistening in
streetlights, dogs chasing alongside. Magical moments like these mark my life. I learned the art of carpe diem.
     I always wanted to go to his high school, poring through his yearbooks and alumni magazines. He never bothered to tell me they didn’t accept girls, but then, by some stroke of fortune, Hotchkiss opened the doors and off I went. We shared even more after that – we both played ice hockey. We both memorized the opening stanzas of Chaucer – well into his dementia, he could still recite it more than 60 years later. We both got into some trouble, but not too much. I inherited a series of letters from his
At Hotchkiss (far left) 1947.
headmaster that read “Dear Mrs. Stebbins, I regret to inform you that your son Bill . . . ). Mom pulled out his Hotchkiss yearbook this week and noted that he had been voted most original, most popular, wittiest, kindest, and biggest roughhouser. She was pleased that he lived up to those all his life (with the exception of the last).
In my father's shadow on the
soccer fields at Hotchkiss.
When I broke with tradition and attended Brown University instead of Yale, he sang to me with gusto “What’s the color of horse shit? Brown, Brown, Brown!” Years later he and Mom watched my four-year-old daughter while I was away for a few days. When I returned, she burst out with the Yale fight song, “Bull dog! Bull dog! Bow wow wow. E-li Yale!” Fink.
(He also taught her to make a few gruesome faces.)
     He loved books, often reading in themes: all he could find on the Salem witch trials; the Civil War; the Founding Fathers. He read all of John Le Carré, he loved Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories and later Jim Harrison, who captured the rough and thin landscapes of the Upper Peninsula, where he and Mom spent every summer for 25 years.
Alzheimer’s was a slow progression, bookmarked by losses. He stopped driving. Words failed him. One day he couldn’t read anymore. From the time I was a child, I could count on a book from him at Christmas, anything from Louis Leakey to Michael Crichton. When I was in 4th grade he read me the Odyssey as a bedtime story, and then the Iliad. Decades later we both enjoyed Harry Potter. When he could no longer read, I sent him picture books of dogs and he seemed to enjoy turning the pages, admiring each image. They were continually new to him, which was small solace. I took him to the art museum (“Dad! Don’t touch!” – “Oh! Right, right.” “Dad! Don’t touch!” etc.); to the botanic garden; to the river. I felt as if he were truly living in the moment, even if it wasn’t by choice. He took it all in, bewildered, mostly calm, responding to every birdsong with a whistle in mimicry, thrilled when a bird called back.
     He loved animals and was never without a dog or two. I loved to walk the dogs with him at night, when
Leo getting a bath.
And getting a warm bath.
he taught me the constellations that I still see most nights when I walk my own dogs. Now, the North Star ahead of me, I am surrounded by Ursa Major, Cassopoeia, Orion, the Pleiades, guiding me even under this Western sky. My dog Pepper, a coon hound/lab mix, is a “Yooper” (from the Upper Peninsula, the U.P., “Yoo Pee” for non-Michiganders; one of those terms that’s pejorative unless you are one) whom Dad rescued from a neighbor who beat her. After convincing her abuser to give her up, he drove her down to Detroit and put her on a plane to LAX. I am sad he never got to see the dog she has become here (multi-talented, not without fault, but overflowing with love). He would have loved her, and she him.
     Years ago, he would call a herd of cows to the fenceline, cupping his hands and bellowing until they all came running. Last Spring I took him on a slow, scuffling walk and he did the same thing with a flock of geese on the Huron River, standing on a bridge and honking as they all turned and paddled calmly straight for us. Later he shooed a little boy away from some goslings on the shore, agitated that they might be harmed. There was an essence of him still with us, maybe more connected to the lesser animals around us now than to people.
My grandfather on the venerable Kathea
and Dad, rigging the humble Snipe.
     Dad taught me to sail. He grew up in Watertown, NY, and we heard stories of his father sailing the glorious Kathea (my grandfather died years before I was born). Dad became commodore of our sailing club on Barton Pond in Ann Arbor – hardly the glamourous days of Kathea, but we were on the water in our little Snipe most summer Saturdays. We rarely won, capsized a few times, and even turtled once (boat completely upside down, mast stuck in the mud). But we always showed up, and once in a while we did well: I still have the engraved beer mug to prove it, along with a bowline, half hitch, figure 8, and a few more knots he taught me.
     He loved the water. He taught me to body surf in the rocky shore break of Lake Michigan. He taught me
Mom and Dad on Lake Ontario, late 1970s
to water ski in the Thousand Islands. He was not a fisherman – he once hooked me in the leg with an erratic cast – but he was always game to take me (kudos here to my Mom’s father, who taught me to fish in Maine, and to Mom, who was never afraid to bait the hook). A little over a year ago Dad got stuck in a tidal current in a canal in the Florida Keys and I rescued him in a kayak; it was physically exhausting for both of us, me paddling against the current and dragging him along behind me, gripping the stern line. I kept yelling “Don’t let go! I’m not coming back if you do!” I was only half joking - I imagined him being swept into Florida Bay and I was not sure I could save him. He shouldn’t have been swimming alone, but it was hard to keep him out of the water. We agreed we needed a vodka (neat for him, rocks for me) after that. He forgot it by the next day.
With Mom, Leo & Charlie on skis.
     Last summer I took him for a swim in Lake Huron, one of his last. We forgot our towels, and when Mom came down the path with them he said with an impish urgency “Quick! Get in the water! Here she comes!” He thought she was coming to nix the swim and he was determined to go. We swam out in the waning light for a while, hard up against the current and easily back downwind, him pausing to do his famous ‘dead man’s float.’ He was fine until I had to pull him out – his legs too weak to stand up on the slippery rocks in the shallow water. He was still seizing that chance to dive in at 84.
     Humor was paramount. His best and oldest friends were the most intellectually brilliant, curious, funny, and occasionally profane people I’ve met. A few were literally lifelong friends, cradle to grave. I loved being with them. As a professor, he treated his students like his children (and vice versa, for better or worse: he expected a lot). They were as devoted to him as he was to them, and he was instrumental in setting them on paths to success and to making a difference in the lives of others. Although he won awards, published books, received accolades, his impact in the world was not in those but in the minds of people who were fortunate enough to fall into his sphere of influence. He was proactive in supporting women and minorities at the university. He took students under his wing and counseled them on everything, from academic careers to major personal life decisions. He wasn’t always right, but he was always there to listen.
On the deck with a few of his favorite things: music, coffee,
two Siamese cats and a dog.

He appreciated irreverence. He liked to tell the story of how in kindergarten he threw dog poo on a dare at Viggo Mortensen’s mother, whom he grew up with (I think he had a crush on her his whole life; I can’t remember if he actually hit her or not, but this story resisted the breach of Alzheimer’s). When my mother served us corned beef on toast, as soon as she was out of earshot he would say, “We used to call this SOS in the army – shit on a shingle.” He wasn’t often crass, just funny. He loved limericks, my sister’s dirty jokes, tongue twisters and puns. He taught me to play chess and to shoot the moon in Hearts. There were wicked games of croquet and ping pong and charades. Once he led me and my sisters and our boyfriends on a run through the snowy woods in time to shoot bottle rockets at the 5:15 Amtrak (bottle rockets were fired, although we were well out of range).
Giving instruction in cutthroat Peggity.
     One sweet line in his obituary is about his survivors: wife, daughters, son-in-law, grandchildren, sister, and his beloved dog, Rose. She is
Goofing off in the woods with Ryder.
indeed a wonderful dog, the final one who aged along with him into senior status. They were certified as a therapy team and even in his 80s he would tell me he was taking Rose to visit the “old folks’ home.” Even when his memory was mostly gone, when he didn’t really know who we were anymore, he could still talk about the dog. “She’s a peach,” he would say, “a real gem.” Last month he said to me, “She’s a real pitch.” I corrected him, “Peach, Dad, peach.” “Oh, right, peach. Peach.” We both laughed. His humor stayed with him even when just about everything else was gone.
     My Dad’s last gift was posthumous, a final contribution to the many he made to science during his lifetime, as his body was donated to the University of Michigan Medical School. As for Rose, I often wondered which of them would leave us first. After he died, Mom said she wished there were some way she could let Rose know, but I bet she knows. That’s her, sitting to attention in front of him, in the picture with the formal obituary ( His beloved Rose. As he often said, tears before night fall.
On the Pacific Coast with some friends.

1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous tribute to your Dad, Rebecca! What beautiful memories. What a wonderful father!