I was a little over a year old, and my mother was pregnant with my sister Andrea, when someone asked my Dad “Will you give her back now?” – referring to my adoption. Years later, when Dad told me this story, he would admit that it was the one time he’d ever felt like punching someone in the face. He didn’t, of course. But it was the first serious conversation I remember having with my Dad, and it was the first conscious moment I have of knowing I was adopted. I must have been five or so.
He was good at telling stories – sometimes long-winded ones – that taught us to trust ourselves. He told stories that told us we were loved. Unconditionally. He taught us – all of us — what it meant to be a grown up.
My youngest sister Katja has talked about Dad’s letters so beautifully, so I won’t go into those, or how many yellow lined paper “you’re in trouble now” letters I may or may not have received.
But when I had my heart broken for the first time, it was Dad who came to talk and let me cry and say that sometimes people are jerks to each other. Loving someone sometimes hurts your heart, he said. That was being a grown up.
He defended my mom to us three teenaged daughters with a maddening consistency that confused and irritated me at the time. But now, as a wife and mother, I appreciate it and want that same unified and supportive backup for myself, for my family. It was part of being a grown up.
Our Dad had awkward moments as well. At my wedding, he rambled on and on about how he and mom tried and tried and then tried some more to get pregnant for years before adopting me. And then there was the time he and I sat down to watch Barbarella – starring a nubile Jane Fonda — because I was obsessed with Duran Duran and had heard the band’s name was based on a character in the movie. For those who know Barbarella, you’ll understand why many of the scenes were supremely awkward to watch with your teenage daughter. But he did it. And then we never spoke of it again. Because that’s also being a grown up.
On the other hand, when I broke my far-too-early curfew to attend a high school party to get completely smashed, Dad taught me that being a grown up sometimes means facing the music – but later. He carried me sadly into the house that night, all the while listening to me slur that this was all his fault. At the time, he just kept repeating quietly, “I know. I know.” And the next morning, he came up and talked to me about drinking too much and scaring my parents and being respectful of myself. But he didn’t raise his voice or get angry or shame me for my behavior. In expecting me to be a grown up, he showed me what it meant.
Over the last year, Dad and I have been having talks about death and dying and what it meant for those of us left behind. We talked about the blessing of being able to have time to say Goodbye and I Love You and Thank You. Not everyone has that chance. We talked about the afterlife, and he asked permission to discuss heaven and his abiding faith with my son. He knew the image of Opa waiting in heaven, young and strong and healthy, to play soccer with his grandson would be a comfort, not just to my son, but to our whole family. They were grown up talks.
It has always been important to my Dad to exhibit patience, to make it clear that admitting love is a sign of strength, not weakness, to show humility in all things, and to be fair. In one of our last conversations, my Dad asked me for confirmation that I felt equally loved to my sisters. Even 45 years after someone asked if he would give me back, he wanted to know that I knew he never would. We cried together that day. And we were quiet together and we knew we were loved.
Those who have been lucky enough to be a part of my Dad’s life know that his love for family and friends, his respect for colleagues and neighbors, his devotion to his God and his ideals, and ultimately his humility in allowing himself to be cared for by those who loved him are all life lessons in how to be a grown up. And I thank him for those lessons.