For My Daddy

Today should have been my father's 80th birthday, but he got unlucky. Despite adopting and stringently practicing overwhelmingly healthy habits in his adulthood, in early 2012 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within the year.

Since I was living far away, I didn't witness his steady and heartbreaking decline, but I (with my fiancé and son, his only grandchild) managed to get to Denver a few days before he died, in a lovely hospice where from what I could see, he was treated with dignity and respect. I am sorry he died alone, but I suspect he may have wanted it that way. He let go of his life about half an hour from when we arrived for the morning visit, which had swiftly become our routine after we arrived. A few days prior, he'd had one last obvious lucid moment and he knew the four of us were there with him.

My father was one of the most intelligent people I've ever known, and not just in his command of facts, which was prodigious, but in the cross-disciplinary, big-picture way of the true intellectual. Dad was a student of human behaviour. He loved observing people and trying to understand what made them tick. Although he had no patience for utter stupidity or greed, he was forgiving of the foibles of his fellow man. He had a distinctive and wide sense of humour. He loved to laugh and to make people laugh. He loved the United States with a devotion I concluded she did not deserve, but the America of his boyhood was in many ways a gentler and more cohesive place. At his memorial service, I remarked, "In losing my father, I have lost the person closest to me in temperament in the whole world." Because of this, although I wish he were still here to see and share in (some of) what's happened (Trump as President might have killed him, especially after the promise of Bernie) and to give us the continuing benefit of his wisdom, I can't really miss him because he lives on so strongly inside of me.
He was 33 when I came along. I was a much longed-for child but not only that, I'm sure (Mom forgets now) that my parents did want a girl, in their heart of hearts. I suspect some of this, on Dad's part, was a scholarly curiosity: to see what growing up is like for the other side. In the 1970s, first time parents in their thirties were considered quite old. Of my cohort at school, some of us were raised by Baby Boomers and others like me were raised by members of the Silent Generation. In the way that children and grandparents have a common enemy, there is a generational affinity when parents and children are two generations apart, perhaps to compensate for the likelihood that we won't share as much of our lives together. And I was an only child, so that contributed to our little family's closeness.

Dad's own family of origin was challenging. First his father, Fred Sr, then his much-older and admired brother, Fred Jr, fled the family home when he was still quite young. He wound up leaving himself, at age 17, and would always imbue the words "I left home" with a certain stress when he recollected the story. Dad always told his stories--and he had certain favorites I heard many times--with Midwestern flair.

He left his hometown of St Louis not much later, arriving in New York City, where he was able to begin his studies at New York University despite never graduating high school. In those days, perhaps with a friend (his brother) in a higher place, one could prove aptitude for university studies via standardised tests. Dad took to academic life although departmental politics and life events meant he never started a PhD; his terminal degree was a Certificate of Advanced Studies from Johns Hopkins University.

By then, he was married and living in Baltimore, where I was born. Dad was a devoted teacher; he really had no interest in conducting research and actually held much economic research of the era in disdain (correctly!) My parents have taken turns being the primary or sole breadwinner. They were determined to keep Mom at home with me full-time in my early years, so for a few stressful years, Dad kept us afloat via short term teaching jobs at numerous Maryland community colleges--the gig economy before it was the Gig Economy. I continued enjoying my childhood. Back then children were frequently left on their own to do just that: "Go outside and play!" Although I have had no lifelong friendships from my first decade, I certainly learned how to embrace solitude. My parents have always been tenants but we lived in the same lovely apartment complex (I was the only child; you couldn't move in with them) for my first 11 years, until they decided we'd outgrown it (and I vaguely remember the Department of Housing and Urban Development possibly taking over the complex's ownership and/or management.)

Dad loved holidays. He was the one who I remember dying and hiding the Easter eggs, carving the Halloween pumpkin (after presenting me with four arrangements of the key facial features to choose from), cracking walnuts for pumpkin cakes as he watched autumn football, and going trick-or-treating with me. We also had amazing summer holidays: most years there would be a road trip, always to a different place, AND we'd rent a cabin in Pennsylvania's Tuscarora Mountains during the Dog Days of summer, when everyone in their right mind looks to escape the yearly crescendo of Baltimore's oppressive humidity.

Dad, I miss our talks, I wish you could still spend time with your grandson, but I'm so grateful you were my father. You played a very active role in my life, compared to many fathers who leave all the parenting to their wives. You wanted me, you nurtured me, you encouraged me, you empathised with my teenage struggles and angst. You weren't a perfect father but I don't recall you ever putting yourself on those sorts of pedestals. You expressed your feelings. I was afraid of your temper, but it never crossed a line, and for that reason I know men can be relied on as protectors and that righteous anger is an important fuel. Because of you, I know what the love of a man should look and feel like and I will never settle for a substitute that isn't good enough to nurture and support me.

You taught me your way of relating to people. I've only spent a few years as a formal (paid) teacher, yet I follow in your steps as a teacher. I studied anthropology because I couldn't help to be strongly drawn to a field whose method is to observe and participate, as that is how we Schillers fight our way through this beautiful, maddening mystery we call life.

In memory of James Joseph Schiller, born 12 October 1937, died age 75.
(I am trying not to memorize the date of his death. The photo is the last one of the two of us, in March 2012 after he'd just come like a champ through a Whipple procedure to try to remove the cancer.)


An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.