“Did you know Brett shot 92% from the free throw line?”
Gene smiled at me from across the couch, his bright blue eyes twinkling. They matched his blue cotton shirt, tucked carefully into a pair of crisp khaki pants.
I had only known Gene for two weeks, and this was the third time he had rattled off my boyfriend’s impressive free throw stats.
“Really?” I asked innocently. “I had no idea!”
I turned to Brett. “Did you play basketball in high school or something?”
Brett grinned and said, “A little.”
Gene stared at me, not quite sure if we were joking or not. To be on the safe side, he reminded me of some of Brett’s other impressive basketball stats, just to make sure I knew how lucky I was to be dating his son (as if I didn’t know).
Gene and I had some rendition of this conversation almost every time we saw each other during the first year that Brett and I dated. He bragged about his son, I pretended I had no idea that Brett ever played basketball, and then he bragged some more. It was practically a script. By the end of that year, I had memorized those stats myself, much to Brett's embarrassment.
The dementia diagnosis wouldn’t come for a couple more years, and to this day I have no idea if Gene's mind was already slipping away or if he thought it was a game like I did. I choose to believe the latter.
On our wedding day, Gene’s entire toast was about Brett. He told basketball stories and spouted off sports highlights, making sure everyone in the room, including my entire family, knew of Brett’s accomplishments. We used to laugh about that speech, but today when I think about it, I get teary-eyed.
We were only six months into parenthood when Gene passed away. If I close my eyes, I can picture the moment we found out. Five missed calls noticed as we pulled into the garage. My husband standing in the driveway saying, “Don’t say that, don’t say that,” over and over again into the phone. I knew. A lump formed in my throat as I unbuckled our baby boy from his car seat. We were 90 miles away. I remember the sun was shining, even though it shouldn’t have been. I remember standing in the garage while my husband and I cried with a baby sandwiched in between us. I remember throwing pajamas and a toothbrush and a handful of diapers into a duffel bag as the sun went down. I remember the drive—we stopped for roast beef sandwiches—and I remember walking into my mother-in-law’s house and calmly placing her blue-eyed grandson in her arms, the only thing I had to offer. Fifteen pounds of innocence.
In the coming weeks we’d receive flowers and cards, offers for meals. As time went on, nobody knew what to say or do for us as we grieved behind closed doors. How could they? We didn’t know what to say or do for ourselves.
Someone wrote on my Facebook one day, “Good fathers raise good fathers.”
Brett had only been a dad for six months, but I knew this to be true.
Gene always said he wanted to live long enough to see Brett become a dad. I thank God he did. Our first baby has Gene’s eyes, and it wouldn’t have been fair for him to miss looking in them. Sometimes I regret not giving our firstborn Eugene as a middle name. We gave it to our second instead, the namesake Gene would never meet this side of heaven. I wish we hadn’t waited.
It’s been four and a half years since we stood in the driveway with that news crushing our hearts. We’ve moved twice, changed jobs, and had another baby since then. Everything is different, but one thing is exactly the same: Brett is still an amazing dad.
I know you don’t get to the cemetery as often as you’d like. Sometimes I see guilt in your eyes when you talk about that, which is why—this week in particular—I’d like to remind you of the millions of ways you honor your dad each and every day.
I wish you could see yourself the way I do; you’re a living legacy.
When you wrestle with the kids for the 80th time before bed and let them climb all over your back like a human jungle gym, you’re being an “on-the-floor” dad, just like he was. When you come home after a long day of work (not to mention an hour commute) and somehow muster up the energy to take the boys for a bike ride, you’re showing them your priorities are in order, and I know you learned that from your dad. When you teach our kids to play basketball/soccer/baseball/insert sport here_____, you are paying tribute to the greatest coach you ever knew: Coach Gene.
When you cut the crusts off grilled cheese and fold tiny t-shirts beside me at 10pm and go into work late so you can help us survive the dentist appointment, you are telling me over and over again that I'm not alone in this work. You are telling me over and over again that you're here, that you're present, that you are a willing and active participant in this beautiful and glorious responsibility of raising children. I know Gene taught you how to do that, how to be that.
When you pray for our kids, when you discipline our kids, when you roll monster trucks up and down every square foot of this house with two boys trailing behind you giggling their faces off … you are wholeheartedly, without a doubt, honoring your dad. I could go on and on here—the tedious sunscreen applications, the puppet shows, the hours you spend on the trampoline, the infinity games of hide-and-seek. Your gentleness in the middle of the night. Your character, hard work, and determination to provide for our family. Your (annoyingly thorough) attention to detail when it comes to installing the car seats properly.
You are who you are because of him, and there is profound acknowledgment and celebration of Gene in every living moment that you serve our family.
Good fathers raise good fathers.
At this rate, our boys are going to grow up to be some of the very best.