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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stories About my Dad: he flies through the air with the greatest of ease...

"Dad taught me the words to the Our Father, or at least taught me what they all meant." This is one my earliest memories. We were in the kitchen. There were Peppermint Patties involved, I'm certain of it.

My brother and mother had a hard time believing this today, when I mentioned it casually over lunch. "Are you sure?" asked Mom carefully, "your father wasn't... a very religious man."

"I'm sure," I replied. "He at least wanted me to know what I was saying if I was going to be saying it."

Six years ago today, March 15th, my entire life was turned upside down when I lost my father. He died after only being sick a few months; he was young and the entire thing was completely unexpected. There are no words to explain what losing him did to me or to my family, so I won't try that. This is the first time I've tried to address his death in public writing at all, so bear with me.

Even when Dad was alive there was legend about him. He was a firefighter in Boston, and he had done everything from fighting fires, to driving the chief, to doing fire inspections for buildings all over the city. Dropping his name got me parking places, got me hugs, invited stories, and even made creeps stay away from me on the dance floor at local pubs. I was Warren Whitaker's daughter, and everyone knew it.

More than just being known for the quality of his work, my Dad was even better known for his kindness, generosity, sense of humor, intelligence, loyalty and fun loving nature. It felt like everyone in Boston had a great story to tell me about my Dad. People he lent money to, people whose computers he fixed, whose houses or decks he helped build, locks he had changed for free. Guys who thought of him like a brother. Women who took his advice about their boyfriends. I followed attentively as he led by example.

My father was my hero. Except for a brief period of time when I was 14 to 17 years old or so, he could do no wrong. To this day I regret every single time my teenaged head butted his about vegetarianism or the merits of being allowed to wear mascara to school. Deep down he had to have known he was just helping me learn how to stand up for what I believed. Luckily for both of us, by the time I went off to college I believed the sun rose and set over him all over again.

I get my sense of humor from my Dad. For him, laughter was the center of any good friendship. He would riff on jokes with us in the car, or plan elaborate pranks on his friends for weeks. My mother would laugh so had she cried sometimes, and those were the best times. Sometimes when we're all together I catch my brother and myself vying for the same reward of cracking Mom up so hard we all forget why we were laughing.

When I expressed the tiniest bit of interest in Monty Python he went out and bought me the DVD of Holy Grail that night. I said it on the way to a rehearsal, and when he picked me up he handed it to me with two other movies we had talked about. He was just so excited that we could start to share a similar sense of humor. I know that if he were alive today we'd send each other YouTube videos all the time, he would have been at IB all last spring helping to build the theater, and he'd be bringing friends every weekend to see me at Improv Asylum.

He never did get to see me do improv. When he was in the hospital I had just debuted in Mission:Improvable. I brought my shirt to show him and he told me how proud he was. I looked at my head shot hanging in the lobby this weekend and thought of how wide he'd smile if he could see that too.

He'd be just as proud of my day job. This isn't widely known, but I became a nurse because of my Dad. When he was in the hospital he told me in passing, "you'd make a good nurse." I thought it over and switched majors within a month of his death.
Both he and Mom had already set me up for a life of service in a much less direct way. Mom and Dad met in EMT school. My Mom worked as a radiologist. My Dad became a firefighter. Caring for strangers was second nature to them, and they passed that on to me quietly, intuitively. I had never considered a career in the medical field but when I was exposed to it something deep within me responded clearly. There was no way I would quit. And today, because of him I have a job that fulfills that part of me as well as pays the bills.

There are plenty of things in my life I've done that I imagine might not elicit his pride. But his forgiveness taught me how to forgive others, and how to forgive myself.

It was a sweltering hot day in July when I accidentally drove my mother's car - backwards - into our kitchen. I tore the electrical boxes and doodads straight off the house. The sparks and noise alone would have gotten the neighbor's attention, but the subsequent shutting down of the power for the entire street is what really brought people outside. I slumped over the wheel, wishing I had been at least knocked unconscious by the error so I wouldn't feel so terrible. Inevitably, I had to exit the wreck.

I turned to face him. He was standing at the end of the driveway, dressed for work. He was chewing on a cigar. (This was during his Sopranos phase). He took the cigar out of his mouth, held out his arms for me, smiled and said, "Hey. Stuff happens."

I think of my Dad in some way almost every day. Some days more than others. I am apparently even more like him than I can know. "Have you always put vinegar on your french fries?" Mom asked at the beach last year, "your father did that." "I had no idea." I munched, a little happier knowing that parts of him were tucked away unbeknownst even to me.

I have his nose and his love of jazz. He taught me that it's almost always worth it to give someone a ride home if you have the means to do it. He taught me that even low brow humor has a time and place, but he also taught me what "deliver us from evil," means. When I'm feeling good I can feel him right there with me. And when I'm not feeling so good... I can still see his smile and hear him say "stuff happens," and know that I'm strong enough to get through whatever it is. Because through and through, I'm still his daughter, and always will be.


liz said...

I don't think I'll ever get tired of the story about you driving into the house.

Shannon said...

I love you very much.