My father died on sunday.
To some degree, I’m still in shock. Even though we knew it was coming, when something like this happens, no amount of preparation really helps. He’d been sick with an antibiotic resistant infection since November, and on thursday, refused to let them give him a feeding tube. So we really knew, almost to the day, when he was going to die. And yet, when it finally happened, it was still a shock.
We buried him yesterday. I didn’t speak at the funeral, because I couldn’t. Every time I try to talk about him, my voice just shuts down. But my fingers don’t. So if you’ll bear with me, I want to say a little bit about my father.
If you enjoy reading this blog, you owe him. He’s the person who got me interested in math, and who taught me how to teach. To give you an example that I remember particularly vividly: when I was in fourth grade, he was doing work on semiconductor manufacturing. He
had brought home a ream of test data from a manufacturing run, and was sitting at our dining room table, paper spread out around him, doing an analysis of the data. I walked in, and asked what he was doing. He stopped working, and proceeded to explain to me what he was doing. That evening, he taught me about bell curves, linear regression, and standard deviation. He was able to make all of that understandable – both how to do it, and why you do it – to a fourth grader.
Until I went to college, I pretty much didn’t learn math in school. He taught me. I learned algebra, geometry, and calculus from my father, not from my math teachers. He bought me my first book on programming.
He was a soldier in World War two. He dropped out of high school, and lied about his age in order to be allowed to enlist. As far as I know, that was one of the only times in
his life that he lied about something important. But to him, doing his part to defend his country was more important than the rule about how old he had to be to enlist. He didn’t end up fighting; his unit didn’t get deployed to the front. He would up spending his time in the army in India.
After coming home, he went to college on the GI bill, and became a physicist. But calling him a physicist is a little deceptive: he was a very hands on person. He wound up
doing work that most people would call electrical engineering. He worked on semiconductors mainly for satellites and military applications. During his career, he worked on things ranging from communication satellites, to the Trident and MX missiles, to the power system for the Galileo space probe. I had my disagreements with him over working on the missiles; he believed very strongly in the whole idea of deterrence, that his work would not be used to harm people, but would prevent another war. And it does appear that he was right about that. But I was always prouder of his work on Galileo.
Music was an incredibly important thing to him. He made all three of his kids learn
music. Back when my brother and I were in high school, he used to spend something around 12
hours a week driving to music lessons or rehearsals. And he never missed a concert that one
of his kids played in – from the time we started playing instruments in elementary school,
all the way until he was hospitalized last november. My brother and sister both ended up going into music: my brother majored in music performance and composition in college; my sister in music education. Musically, I’m the black sheep of the family.
He was a survivor of cancer. 20 years ago, he developed an aggressive muscular cancer in his leg. Being incredibly lucky, even though he stalled for months after noticing a lump in his leg, it was operable, and between surgery and radiation therapy, he survived it. A year later, there appeared to be a recurrence; it turned out to just be scar tissue, but in the surgery where they discovered that, they needed to do an arterial graft, which caused intermittent trouble for the rest of his life.
Since high school, I called him “Fink”. I don’t even remember why. But he bore it with pride. When I had kids, he wanted them to call him grandfink.
He died of an antibiotic resistant infection. As long as I live, I’ll never be able to forgive the Doctors who took care of him. The illness that killed him started with an infection in his little toe. Due to a spectacularly stupid series of errors – where basically repeated infections with antibiotic resistant bacteria were not treated properly – he developed antibiotic resistant pneumonia, which is what ended up killing him.
He was 80 years old. He was an amazing person. And he will be missed.