My life feels really meaningful when inspiring, encouraging, or showing kindness to others. And I have my dad to thank for a lot of that.

“Right at this moment, I’m not sure where to turn next,” I said near the end of the eulogy I delivered at my father Frank’s funeral in July 2005. “The world is a lonelier place without your Dad. I know that he has taught me almost everything I need to know to live well, but right now I just simply want him. I need his reassuring voice. I just want to chit chat with him. It’s the middle of baseball season, and football season draws near.”

My 80-year-old father’s passing completed a surreal circle of life that summer of 2005, when my youngest daughter Olivia was born. I wasn’t ready to let Dad go. My family and I had known for a while that because of certain health issues Dad was in his season of winter; and yet his passing still struck us like a bitter, early frost.

Family, friends, former work colleagues, and even casual acquaintances expressed their love and appreciation for my father in the days following his death and during the crowded celebration of his life that took place in my parents’ church. Dad had touched so many people through his humor, compassion, good advice, positive thinking, and demeanor. As for me, he was my hero, my rock, my role model, my quiet reassurance during the storms of life, and I mourned that he would not be there to enjoy the growth of my two little girls. But I also knew that I was an integral part of the best years of his life, his most productive years, and that he was as assured of my love for him as I was regarding his love for me.

Intrinsic motivation and success

Dad was part of that so-called “silent generation.” He often didn’t say much, but when he spoke he was wise and sometimes the life of the party with his dry, witty remarks.

My father encountered significant obstacles early and often during his life that could have discouraged him if he permitted them to. Born in 1925, he came of age during The Great Depression; and as one of five brothers, there were not a lot of resources to go around. As a wiry 17-year-old, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and spent four years fighting World War II. At the young age of 25, his own father Frank, only 50 years old, died of a massive heart attack.

Dad didn’t have the opportunity to attend college but used the G.I. Bill to go to trade school. He was handy with electronics and repaired televisions for a few years before wiring cable boards for flight simulators. He later moved into the sales arena, operating his own business with a few other relatives for many years before circumstances led Dad to move his family to Florida for a fresh start in 1974, when I was six.

We began our Florida era by renting a roach-infested house for a few months, and then moved on to three more rentals across a period of less than two years. My dad was searching for his niche, for a job that would click and enable him to support his family for the long term. Although at the time I was shielded from such realities by the wonderment of childhood, my mother Flora once told me about the difficulties of those early months in Florida. There were many weeks when she had no idea how they would get money for groceries.

But she said my father would tell her, “When I worry, then you worry.” Dad was such a positive thinker. He always said that if you could picture a goal in your mind, you could achieve it. He had some great platitudes, such as “The Three Ts: Things Take Time.” Dad trained his mind to see the glass half full, to look for the pony amid the manure, to see the possible within a hallway of rapidly-closing doors.

Dad read motivational books such as Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, The Magic Power of Self-Image Psychology by Dr. Maxwell Maltz and The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Dr. Joseph Murphy. He frequently passed these on to his children and others, encouraging us to delve into the morsels of wisdom he had found and be nourished. However, I believe that his entire life was a volume of inspirational thoughts and encouragement. It wasn’t the books or any sales training that made the man—these tools simply drew out the potential for greatness that already was dormant within him. And he approached others in the same way, making sincere efforts to recognize the “It” factor within each person that could lead to their success if they chose to unleash it.

He would tell the corniest jokes, and yet you had to laugh. Some I heard over and over for decades. Dad would trick you if you weren’t paying attention, asking questions such as, “What color was George Washington’s white horse?” and “Where are the survivors of a plane crash buried?” He would hold his palm open, facing up, with his fingers resembling a claw, and ask, “What’s this?” I’d say, “I don’t know,” and he’d rotate his wrist 180 degrees, his palm now facing the ground and reply, “A dead this.”

My father had irresistible charm to disarm, and people went the extra mile for him—in sometimes silly and even politically incorrect ways—because they felt the goodness of his heart. He was a humble guy, yet got everyone to constantly measure their decision making against the question, “Would Frank DeMarco Do It That Way?” Dad made placards that said, “I Love Frank” and passed them out to every woman who worked in his office—and they proudly displayed them on their desks. When he was being wheeled back for his first open heart surgery in 1982, Dad encouraged the orderlies and nurses to sing, “God Save the King.”

Spending quality time together

At age seven I discovered what would be a sustainable love across my life: the beach. My earliest Florida memories center on playing in the sand and jumping in the waves with my father. Dad taught me how to bodysurf. I’d watch him scan the horizon for wave patterns, awaiting just the right swell that would transport his elongated body to the shoreline. He tried to teach me how to float; but no one I knew could float as well as my dad, relaxing his body and making it feel as light as the foam dancing upon the surf.

My father and I had one frightening incident in the ocean, when I was 10, as Dad, my brother Frank, and myself were caught in a riptide. Thankfully, Frank’s friend Tim was able to help us get back to shore. But I still remember Dad not panicking, instructing us to float alongside of him and preserve our strength until the opportunity for safety emerged. Later, Dad scribbled on a small piece of paper that we were “saved by God” that day and kept this note in his wallet for the rest of his life. It now rests in my wallet.

Dad and I played a lot of Frisbee near the shoreline. He taught me the basic maneuvers for throwing the plastic disc and then started adding intricate moves such as how to make the Frisbee skip along the hard sand, how to throw it side-ways, and how to catch it one-handed and behind my back. My confidence grew the more we practiced. I learned how to “thread the needle,” my phrase for slinging the Frisbee toward Dad’s outstretched hands as he stood in the middle of a crowd of beachcombers, knowing I would throw it perfectly to him and not hit someone else in the head. Most of the time I succeeded; for the other occasions, I’m deeply sorry if I broke your sunglasses.

Sometimes my parents bought a large bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way to the beach and left it resting on a beach towel, my mother sitting next to it in a chase lounge, while Dad and I built sandcastles and bodysurfed and threw the Frisbee. I could smell the delicious aroma as soon as I took a few steps away from the shore and headed toward the softer sand where the chicken was waiting for me, and I can still smell it now.

Dad enjoyed being active and we extended our outdoor hobbies beyond the beach to a fitness track at the local YMCA. We’d jog together and then stop at each exercise station to do pull-ups, push-ups, and jumping jacks. Dad dropped little bits of verbal motivation along the way.

Then, Dad helped me discover baseball and enrolled me in a Little League team. I was terrible; my bat didn’t even touch a single pitch during my first season let alone produce a hit. Determined to help me improve, Dad took me to the empty ball fields on the weekends and pitched to me and hit countless fly balls in my direction. I gradually started to hit his pitches far more effectively than I would ever fare against the young teenagers on the Little League mounds and develop a strength for catching and throwing the baseball.

He taught me how to throw a football as well and I became quite good, able to heave deep spirals to my friends during sandlot games. I can still visualize my father and I in our backyard, tossing the pigskin back and forth, sometimes running patterns for each other. On occasion the ball sailed over the fence and into our neighbor’s yard, and one of us would have to go see our crotchety old lady neighbor to retrieve it. As we played I fancied myself to be a quarterback or wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins, our favorite team when I was growing up.

Reflecting on my early life, it’s hard to think of anything I’d love to do again more than playing catch with my dad or catching a wave together.

Transportation lessons…and fails

My earliest form of transportation was a “Big Wheel” I received at age seven. I had learned about the stuntman Evil Knieval and seen the Happy Days episode where Fonzie jumps garbage cans on his motorcycle, and this led me to assemble a wooden ramp upon a cinderblock and begin jumping small objects on my Big Wheel. I don’t think Dad was fond of me doing this, and one day my Big Wheel cracked in half. Instead of a new Big Wheel I got a skateboard and used it to explore our neighborhood and visit friends.

I received my first bicycle on Christmas Day 1976, when I was eight. Not long after my brother and I had ripped open our cache of presents, Dad took me outside for my inaugural bike ride. I scooted the bike down the driveway past the family car and got set to pedal it down to the cul de sac. My father stood beside me and then gave me a shove; I pedaled hard and made it no more than 20 yards before panicking and slamming into a parked car. I started crying; Dad rushed over to me, calm, encouraging me to get up and try again. I did get up and try again but didn’t master the art of bicycling until he took me to the beach and let me pedal across the hard, flat sand at low tide.

Years later Dad also taught me to drive a car. He owned a diesel Buick sedan in the early 1980s and I practiced cruising along those same flat beach sands where the speed limit was 15 miles per hour. Soon I graduated to local streets where I could go a little faster, including a winding road where I almost hit an oak tree. Then he drove us to the interstate, which scared the hell out of me.

As I progressed Dad tossed out micro-lessons about the art of driving. The one I think about the most was his personal spin on defensive driving: “Always assume that every other driver out there is an idiot.” He also advised me to stay focused on the car in front of me rather than the one behind me. Dad frowned upon tailgating and insisted I always use my turn signals. The only best practice he didn’t emphasize was wearing a seatbelt; this was before it became mandatory, and when Florida passed its seatbelt law I was 18 and I started buckling up.

Sports pals

When we weren’t hanging at the beach, the YMCA, or the ballfields, my father and I spent hours of time watching NFL and Major League Baseball together on television. Our teams were the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Braves, respectively. We discussed certain plays, mistakes, players, and coaches. We’d both have a visceral reaction when we thought a pass would result in a touchdown or a big swing would result in a home run. I could feel my dad getting stressed if I was stressed about the outcome of an important game. I took these outcomes very seriously; for example, the day after the Dolphins lost the 1983 Super Bowl to the Washington Redskins I didn’t go to school.

During slow moments of the games or during commercials, one of us would suddenly pretend to karate chop the other in the abdominals; the intended victim would quickly raise an arm to parry the attack. Even when I was an adult, all I had to do was make the chop motion and Dad’s reflexes would respond in kind. When I sat with him during his final hours on July 26, 2005, I almost did the chop motion again just to see if he was conscious enough to react. Dad probably would have appreciated the humor.

Sometimes during the game commercials we’d take turns rolling a little exercise wheel that gave my father abs of steel before the ubiquitous fitness craze swept across America. Dad also owned some hand-grips he said would strengthen my hands, wrists and arms. In addition, he was always advocating the “dynamic tension” concept popularized by the late bodybuilder Charles Atlas, which involved pushing one’s palms together in front of the chest with as much as force as possible.

My sports interests narrowed to Florida State University football once I started attending there in 1988 and Dad naturally became a huge FSU fan as well. The evening or morning after a game I’d call him, and we’d discuss the outcome and key plays, usually celebrating together because FSU won most of its games in those days—unless it was playing the Miami Hurricanes, in which case Dad would try to comfort me about the narrow loss. If I was discouraged he would deadpan something to remind me not to lose perspective, such as, “And what’s even worse is that every FSU grad has to take a pay cut because they lost.”

If Dad and I couldn’t think of anything else to talk about there was always sports. Someone who attended my father’s funeral joked to me afterwards that “Frank can see all the games now.” Watching sports since his passing has not been the same, and I’ve watched less and less with each passing year.

Friends before fathers

Although we still watched sports together and were in the middle of my driving lessons, a few months after turning 15 I became less interested in hanging out with my dad and more motivated to spend time with friends and get on girls’ radars; not unusual for any teenager. I started going out on weekend nights with friends who were a year older and already had their own cars. Dad frequently reminded me about the skills and mindsets of newer drivers and encouraged me to keep putting energy into working out and writing, the latter of which was very important to me during my childhood and early teens. When I turned 16 and could drive by myself, my father would stand before the large windows at the front of our house and watch me back out of the driveway.

He continued this ritual when I was an adult, even when I was driving away after visiting with my own young family. Dad’s gaze is hard to forget, and I can easily picture him standing there in front of the window like a silent guardian.

My teen years were also a season when Dad’s job was based in the Jacksonville area, about 90 minutes north of our house. He left on Monday mornings and returned on Friday evenings. We seldom spoke on the phone during the week, and during the weekends I was busy with homework or friends or my job at a supermarket. We were drifting apart, having less and less to talk about, feeling awkward around each other. His occasional platitudes or advice, such as how cutting my longish hair would help it to last longer, would irritate me.

Dad and I had never spoken much about our feelings to each other; we seldom hugged or said, “I love you.” My mother was much more affectionate. I knew my Dad was always there for me, but my world felt quite remote from his. Sometime after I left for college, when we wouldn’t see each other for months at a time, we both started expressing more affection to each other such as a quick “love you” or an awkward hug. I realize now that both of us were doing the best we could.

My father retired not long after I graduated from college but continued to contract with his former employer and go on sales calls. He enjoyed working and my parents needed the extra revenue flow. Dad was a key source of encouragement when I struggled to land a professional job. He was very proud when I landed my first full-time newspaper reporting gig, and immediately read every word of every article I contributed to the paper. His encouragement continued as I shifted from the newspaper to a magazine publishing company and eventually went to seminary for a graduate degree and became a United Methodist pastor and then a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley.

I regret that my adult phone calls with my father, especially when I was in my 30s, were quite brief and usually wrapped up with him saying to me, “Well, Son, I know you’re busy,” which was his way of telling me it was okay if I had to say goodbye. He was excited about the things I was doing with my life, but I could detect a longing for him to have more of my time and presence. I was so caught up in doing that I didn’t leave enough space for simply being.

“Little Papa”

One of the greatest joys I was able to experience was my Dad’s love toward my own children. He lived to see my daughter Alexandra reach the age of five, and she had learned to call him “Little Papa.” He gave her shoulder rubs, made her laugh, and played with her. Sadly, he only saw my youngest daughter, Olivia, twice; she was just five weeks old when he died. I have one precious picture of Dad with Olivia; in the photo, my mother is holding her, and my Dad is gazing down at Olivia, his oxygen tube firmly in place, with adoration in his eyes.

The first and only time I saw my Dad cry was a week before his death. He was undergoing a heart catherization to detect the source of some lingering chest pains. As my mother and I helped him get ready and the nurses came in to wheel him back for the procedure, I asked Dad if I could pray for him. I held his hand and said a short prayer, and when I was done he was choking back tears. Mom and I were wiping away our own tears. I hugged him and told him he would be fine.

As I reflected on that event, I doubted my father was afraid of the procedure
Itself; he’d already endured two open heart surgeries and several more minor procedures. I think he knew, however, that his life was nearing its end, and the prospect of saying goodbye to his family was weighing on him. Regardless of what was going inside of him as I prayed for him, it was a very tender moment, a sacred moment that I’ll always cherish.

I didn’t talk on the phone with my father for several days after the catherization procedure, which had revealed some artery blockages. No additional procedures were scheduled, and my mother said the catherization had worn him out and saw his health rapidly decline day over day. He was weaker, and his breathing became more labored.

I called him on July 25, Alexandra’s fifth birthday, and Dad quickly shifted the subject from his health to his concern that my car’s remote garage door opener wasn’t working properly. I wasn’t sure how he even knew this and assumed my mother had told him. I assured him I would get the remote fixed, and he advised me to buy a new battery for it. I later learned that Dad made a business call sometime that morning to follow up with a prospect. He could barely breathe or walk, but he was determined to take care of his responsibilities.

Right up until the end. The next day, I called my mother in the morning and told her I was driving up with Alexandra for my dad’s 2 p.m. Hospice evaluation at their house. I was almost there at 11:30 a.m. when she called me, crying, saying he was going downhill fast. When I arrived he was in bed, fighting for every breath.
Alexandra and I left and re-entered his bedroom several times across the next few hours. Clare, the pastor from my parents’ church, came to visit and prayed with him. I was restless; it was hard to just be next to him, watching him fade away. Dad perked up for a while as the Hospice nurse arrived and a neighbor and I helped him get into his new hospital bed.

Then, close to dinner time, he again started laboring for breath. I sat close to him, holding his hand, and whispered to him that it was okay if he needed to let go. He had lived well. He was tired, and he could let go if he needed to.

While I was in my old bedroom on the phone with my sister Francine, my father let go. Someone rushed across the house to get me. Still on the phone with Francine, I learned that Dad had simply stopped breathing. My mother and my other sister, Jeanne, where near him when it happened. I wish I had been as well. I brought Alexandra in to say goodbye to him, explaining as best I could that “Little Papa’ had gone to Heaven.

“The most encouraging man”

During my father’s crowded memorial service a few days later, that same pastor, Clare, declared, “Frank was the most encouraging man I’d ever met.” Person after person echoed similar sentiments, either from the stage or during conversation with me and my family members.

As I’ve grown older and considered my own legacy, I admit that I’m not quite in my father’s league; at least, not yet, when it comes to being known first and foremost as a person of encouragement. I’m trying to do better. I’m trying to be kinder.
There’s so much I would still love to tell my father. He’s missed out on a lot, especially the growth and development of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I still dream about him on occasion, including some dreams so vivid that I can feel his razor stubble or his embrace.

I wonder what Dad would say to me right now if he could observe decisions I’ve made and circumstances I’ve navigated across the past 19 years. Whatever he’d say, my hunch is that I’d leave the conversation feeling a bit wiser, and certainly more encouraged; and maybe even chuckling at his attempt to karate chop me in the abs.

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