Monday, March 11, 2013

Celebrating my Father's Life

As I sit at my father's bedside, managing the increasing heaviness of his breathing, I'm doing my best to keep his lips moist, his extremities warm, and the dosing of his comfort care medications appropriate so there is no air hunger.

People from my parents' past are calling and emailing me, telling me their stories and reveling in the impact my father had on their lives.  They've told me:

He inspired them to go into engineering (he's a patent lawyer trained as an engineer)

He inspired them with his kindness and gentleness

His tenacity living with multiple sclerosis for 23+ years inspired them to approach their own illnesses with vigor

Some of the stories people remember:

When I was 13 in 1975, my father got me my first summer job, working at defense contractor TRW.   I developed satellite telemetry parsing software in Fortran, working in the same building as Chris Boyce (the Falcon and the Snowman) .  My father's effort to give me powerful computer resources in the 1970's changed the course of my life.

One of my father's friends recalls the joy my father felt when he and I built electronics projects together throughout the 1970's  - a metal detector, early analog signal processing experiments such as voice synthesizers, and an Altair 8800

I have many special memories of life with my father, many of them forever preserved on Kodachrome:

My father was in the Air Force from 1963 to 1968, so we traveled extensively.

One of my earliest memories was playing on a Oahu beach in Hawaii  in 1963 with my father when he was stationed near Pearl Harbor.   As a child the ocean was always a favorite place.

We typically drove across country in an old Buick from Air Force posting to posting.   My father took me on a cross country drive from New Jersey to Colorado Springs via Mt. Rushmore in 1964 and I collected wool souvenir pennants along the way.   I learned to love life on the road.

He was stationed near Pensacola, Florida and we lived on the beach in 1965.  We walked the surf line every morning to find sharks, starfish, and conch shells washed upon the shore.   I developed a love of natural history and exploring.

In 1966, we sat together to watch a new kind of television program - Star Trek, when it first aired in prime time.   Since then, I've watched every Star Trek episode and film multiple times.

In 1968, we moved from Willingboro, New Jersey to Torrance, California.   We lived in a one bedroom apartment with the family dog, a terrier named Shakespeare.   One night Shakespeare became very ill and my father drove with me  in the middle of the night, looking for an emergency veterinary hospital, cradling the dog on his lap as he steered the old Buick.

In 1970, I read about linear accelerators in the World Book encyclopedia.   I decided to build one at home and my father helped me by going to a local high school machine shop to fabricate parts.    I was the only third grader to exhibit atom smashing technology and won the science fair.

In 1972, my father and I built model rockets together and drove to the desert to launch them.   The early 1970's were a different time - somewhat dangerous chemicals and rocket fuel were available without restriction.   Luckily, we did no harm to ourselves during our adventures.

In 1973, we built a metal detector together, carefully soldering each transistor into a circuit board.   I used it to find lost change on Redondo Beach.

In 1974, I found an old minibike in a local junkyard.   The engine was largely destroyed by fire.   My father and I rebuilt it, buying parts  as spare funds became available.   By 1975 I was riding it in a nearby parking lot.  Since then I've had a lifelong desire to tinker and fix things.

In 1976, we hiked extensively in the Santa Monica mountains - the most nature you'll find in Los Angeles (think of the set from M*A*S*H).   For most of my life I've been a hiker, climber, and explorer.

In 1977, we road our bicycles, loaded with gear, from Palos Verdes to Santa Barbara, camping along the way at Point Mugu State Park.  I will never forget our attempt at making pancakes on a backpacking stove with a bit too much olive oil.   Gooey fried dough is appealing if you are hungry enough.

In 1980, when I graduated from high school, we visited Kauai and hiked the Napali Coast trail.   I remember that we confused wild Kukui nuts with Macademia nuts.  The laxative properties of Kukui nuts are profound.

In 1980, my adult life began and I attended Stanford, UCSF, and UC Berkeley for years of undergraduate and graduate training.   I still shared every experience and tribulation with my father.   He subscribed to Science and Nature so that he could discuss the latest scientific advances with authority.

In 1990, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and over 23 years progressively lost lower body strength.    He fought the good fight and only this year bought his first wheelchair.

My role at the moment is to keep him comfortable and celebrate his life, reflecting on the profound impact he had on everyone around him.  Over the past day, I've told him all the stories above.   At one time in the night, I told him that I loved him. He opened his eyes and whispered, "I know".   Since then, he's been resting.  The muscle spasms of multiple sclerosis have stopped, and his breathing remains unlabored.


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