Had he not passed away forty years ago, today would've been my father's 85th birthday. He died five months before I was born, so I never knew him, but I've always been struck by what a profound impact he's had on my life without ever being physically present.
A picture from my parents' wedding day always sat atop my dresser as a child, and dozens more photos filled an album on my shelf, but he has always existed within me as much as in the photographs. People who knew him would comment on similarities they saw in me, from the expected physical resemblances to hand gestures which had somehow passed through our shared DNA.
People told me what a wonderful man he was, telling stories of his grace and humanity, almost always finishing with an account of hundreds of mourners overflowing from the church on the morning of his funeral. Depending upon my outlook, he was either an inspiration to guide me or an ideal I could never hope to reach.
Mainly, though, he has been a reminder to me of how precious life is. He was only forty-four years old when he died, and for the first thirty years of my life I was convinced that I would follow him to an early grave. There was nothing hereditary that I needed to worry about, just the overwhelming idea that if it had happened to him, it could happen to me.
It didn't affect my day-to-day living, though. I still fastened my seatbelt when I got in the car, made plans for the future, and saved part of my paycheck each month, but I never thought much about being old or playing with grandchildren. Until I met Leslie. She changed my life in ways too numerous to list here, but the single biggest difference was that I suddenly saw my own life extending beyond my father's. I had found someone whose hand I wanted to hold for the next fifty years, and that made all the difference.
There was a moment when our son was born. When the nurse handed him to me and I held my son for the first time, I felt my father with me as I rarely had before. I wept as I realized that he had never been as lucky as I was in that moment. He had never held his son, never looked into his baby's crying eyes and seen the future shining back at him. As was our custom, Leslie and I had told no one the name we had chosen, and so when the nurse asked, my emotions overwhelmed me and I had trouble speaking the name he would share with me, my father, and my grandfather.
When the nurse asked again, I responded more clearly.