Lessons from My Single, Scientist Dad

After my mother died, my father—who loved me with his heart—had to learn to love me with his head

"Your mommy is probably going to die," my dad told me, his voice shaking.

My dad usually spoke in a commanding baritone. His voice never shook. And he always referred to "your mother," not "mommy."

"She's already dead," I told him.

I was right. She'd died that morning after being in the hospital with anemia for three months. My dad had been giving me updates about her condition, but always lagged behind in telling me what was actually happening, trying to soften the blow that she was dying.

It was August 9,1973. I was about to start the fifth grade.

The first thing my dad did was learn how to make meatloaf. Then he taught me to use the washing machine. We were both used to being cared for by a stay-at-home wife and mother.

Years later, he said he'd always been my pal, ready to take me to the park or the planetarium, but after my mother died, he had to grow up and become a full-time parent.

"I always loved you with my heart," he said, "But after your mother died, I had to learn to love you with my head."

He was a physicist with a demanding job, used to setting his own schedule and leaving me to my mother. I was used to being a spoiled only child. We both abhorred pity, dreading the sorrowful looks we'd get when he had to explain that he was a recent widower. We had figured out how to take care of ourselves and our old ranch house in Northern California. Now we just needed to figure out each other.

I learned he needed quiet in the mornings. He learned how to talk to a child. He focused on one or two things he wanted me to change and forgot the rest. We became friends, bonding over cooking shows on PBS. I learned to bake desserts as a workaround to his rule forbidding sweets in the house. We discussed everything from new school clothes to current events to recipes we wanted to try. I was so happy when he stopped experimenting with curry.

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My dad helped me with my math homework. He gave me a dictionary to look up new words. He talked to me about his passions, astronomy and physics, at a level I could understand. We read books together. I was a nerd, but I appreciated knowledge. I coped with my mother's death by losing myself in books.

He gave me intellectual curiosity and a strong sense of self. He accepted me as I was, a shy, introverted child who liked English and hated PE. Not being able to serve a volleyball probably wasn't going to affect my future. When I cut PE class because some kids were picking on me, he took my side against the school counselor. I didn't realize how lucky I was.

When he started dating again, my dad asked me, "Do you ever worry I'll bring home a terrible step-mother like those fathers in the fairy tales?"

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"No," I answered. "You're not stupid."

After a few years, Dad became interested in Buddhism and meditation, which he also shared with me. I became more interested in teenaged girl stuff, but he knew nothing about popular culture. He was squeamish about female matters, covering his ears only half-jokingly if I even said the word "period." The best way to get him to stop talking was to say I had cramps.

He could explain to me why he was pro-choice, but couldn't talk about anything related to sex. In his world, high school girls didn't wear makeup, did wear plaid skirts and apparently never menstruated.

My dad was too overprotective, but we'd both learned early that people can die unexpectedly, even your own mom. He warned me about fraternity parties and boys who were after just one thing. He'd cut out articles about campus rape from the papers and leave them on my bed. I'd joke with him that I had a Jewish mother as well as a Jewish father.

But he helped me to pick a college, a small liberal arts school, and never complained about how expensive it was. Each semester he helped me select my classes to make sure we were getting our money's worth.

Most importantly, he expected me to have a career after I graduated and to become independent. I could do anything I wanted, but I had to do something. He supported my choice to become a lawyer, not complaining about the expense of law school, nor trying to convince me to become a scientist like he was.

When I was overwhelmed and wanted to drop out of law school, my usually indulgent father said, "OK, but how are you going to support yourself?" I finished school and got a job as an attorney.

By then, my dad had been dating for more than ten years. Several of the women he'd dated were divorcees with no job or credit histories, unable to support themselves. He wouldn't let me wind up like that.

My dad's in his mid-80s now. He's still an intellectual powerhouse, learning computer programing for the online classes he takes. I visit with him once a week. A few times he's said, while reminiscing about the past, "I didn't know what I was doing, but I think we had a lot of fun while you were growing up. Overall, I think we did pretty well."

Yes, we did.

Tags: family