My father would have turned 80 this week if he had only lived long enough to turn 47. His life was cut short. Way too short. But isn’t every life? There is always more to do, more to learn, more to love. The beginning and end of life are unpredictable, influenced by a mysterious blend of timing and luck.
In many ways, my dad was a modern-day Renaissance man — intellectual, athletic, musical, cultured, and curious. At parties, he was known to hold court at the piano, playing songs that comforted and inspired him — Gershwin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel. Others would sometimes sing along. So it seemed only appropriate to play Bridge Over Troubled Water at his funeral instead of a hymn. Oh, if you need a friend/I’m sailing right behind/Like a bridge over troubled water/I will ease your mind.
Throughout his life, Dad never looked happier than when he was on the water — whether in a sailboat, canoe, or windsurfer. He would spend long winter hours reading books about sailing tactics or sanding the dinghy’s centerboard to reduce drag, doggedly seeking an edge that would make a difference in the next regatta. Even after his first heart attack, he refused to give up competitive sailing — usually enlisting one of his children to play mate to his skipper.
He also loved to take on new challenges. Once, while attending a conference in Africa, he hiked to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The morning of the final ascent, the party woke before dawn and reached the peak just as the sun’s first light rose over Africa. He captured the breathtaking image with his camera, and the photograph still hangs on the living room wall next to the telegram he sent to my mother: KILI CLIMB SUCCESS ARRIVE NAIROBI SAFELY NORFOLK HOTEL LOVE TO YOU AND CHILDREN ROSS.
I always thought my father’s childhood in the 1950s could have been the model for Boys’ Life magazine: school, football, scouting, music, camping. He was ambitious and successful, juggled countless priorities, and made everything look easy. But I think he struggled professionally, more than he let on. During a heart-to-heart on a particularly long road trip, he told me that he enjoyed his work as an economist but still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he grew up. What else might he have accomplished, professionally, if he had been granted more time?
At home, Dad was a model husband and father — patient, kind, thoughtful. And, like any good parent, he supported his children’s interests and passions, whether academic, artistic, or athletic. For my sixteenth birthday, he surprised me with the yellow drum set — best gift ever! — that still holds a place of honor nearly forty years later in my music-studio-turned-home-office.
I sometimes wonder what Dad would think about the world in 2021. It’s easy to forget that 1988 was a very different time. The Berlin Wall still divided East from West. Japan, not China, was the emerging Asian power. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan. Violence in Northern Ireland — our family’s ancestral home — showed little sign of abating.
I do know for sure that Dad would have been comfortable in today’s technology-driven world. Who would not have been swept up by his enthusiasm the first time he played with a simple spreadsheet application on an early laptop computer, both primitive by today’s standards? An engineer by training, Dad would have been fascinated by the internet, mobile technology, cloud applications, blockchain, electric cars, and artificial intelligence. He would have embraced the countless innovations that we now take for granted — online banking and shopping, GPS, email, streaming video, social media, Google, and apps that can order pizza or guide meditation.
One night, more than thirty years ago, Dad experienced angina pain while sitting in a theatre next to my mom. It was a prelude to the heart attack that would take his life two days later. As my parents made their way from the theatre to the hospital, Dad probably thought of the neat, organized “to do” list waiting at home. Weekend projects he needed to accomplish. He didn’t have time for this medical diversion. There was too much to do.
My dad made a lot of good choices, and perhaps a few that he regretted. But timing and luck played an important role in his life. They always do. He lived in a time and place where his talents and passions were valued and respected. He never had to fight in a war. He didn’t experience a pandemic. He was blessed with good looks, a sharp mind, and a winning personality. And he enjoyed the love and encouragement of a healthy, happy family and loyal friends. We all hope for such good fortune, though nobody really deserves it.
But Dad was also born with a genetic predisposition to heart disease, and he didn’t live long enough to benefit from the medical advances that might have saved his life only a decade later. So he never met any of his grandchildren. And he was never able to enjoy retirement with my mom. We all take the bad with the good. Is there any alternative? But we learn as we go — that life is always too short. That we can’t wait to pursue our dreams. That it’s risky to avoid risk.
Sometimes you make your own luck. Sometimes luck is passed from generation to generation. But luck is a gift that too many of us fail to recognize. And it is often delivered long before we are born.
Eighty years ago, I got lucky.