The Improbable Brilliance of My Dad

Before he became a successful lawyer and a devoted husband and father, Rich was a wild and crazy counterculture stud back at Colorado College. He enjoys telling his youngest daughter the story of how he transported a brick of hash from Colorado Springs up to Montana. During the trip, he and his friends were encouraged to chip away at the block as payment. When he graduated magna cum laude, none of his frat brothers could believe it. How the hell had this notorious party animal managed to earn his political science degree with fancy Latin? No one knew, but somehow he’d pulled it off. Call it luck, or more accurately, brilliance, but Rich continued to pull off effortless, improbable feats like this his whole life.

When he met his wife, Nancy, at Oktoberfest bier garden in Mt. Angel, Oregon, there were minimal sparks, but no raving love at first sight, not even a marriage proposal in German. She gave him her phone number, which he stubbornly wouldn’t write down. He told her he’d remember it. Passing this off as typical cocky male behavior, she didn’t expect him to call. After all, a date wouldn’t exactly be convenient because she worked as a nurse up in Portland and he attended law school in Salem, an hour’s drive south on the I-5. But again Rich’s brilliance came through, probably driven by something telling him that he should not let a woman this beautiful and amazing pass him by. He called her, and thus their courtship began, simple, unassuming, with no lofty delusions of a union that would last upwards of 29 years.

In the beginning stages of this sporadic long-distance dating arrangement, Nancy had surgery in the hospital where she worked. During her recovery she had a frequent visitor, a doctor admirer who would bring her flowers and sit with her during his off-hours. One day another admirer, a poor, struggling law student, made the trip up to visit her. After one pivotal visit from Rich, the doctor disappeared, never to return. No one knows why, except for Rich. He insists that the doctor gave up on Nancy when he saw his competition, but maybe it was just another case of unexpected brilliance, again driven by his interest in Nancy.

After her surgery, Nancy was left unable to have children. If there was a chance, the medical professionals said, it was microscopic, miniscule, a needle in a haystack. So when she found herself pregnant at the ripe age of 23, she couldn’t believe it. A miracle of modern medicine, this baby had been conceived against all odds. While he later credited “super sperm” with his first daughter’s creation, Rich found himself at a crossroads when he first heard the news. At the time, he was graduating law school into a bleak 1976 job market with a newly pregnant girlfriend. He proposed marriage and waited while Nancy pondered her own crossroads. She eventually accepted, and they were married, shotgun-style, Rich in a powder-blue tux and Nancy in a lacy maternity number.

Following the birth of their daughter, Cari, they packed up and moved to South Dakota, where Rich used his law degree to work at a sawmill in a small town called Spearfish. Unable to find more steady work after a few months, they moved back to Portland, where after seemingly endless rejection letters Rich soon landed a position with a law firm, beginning his career as a tax and estate attorney. He and Nancy bought a house in a quiet, residential Southeast Portland neighborhood. Cari’s birth had erased any remaining traces of a chance of Nancy getting pregnant again, so it was only completely illogical that the turn of the decade ushered in another surprise miracle addition to the family, a second daughter, who Rich named after his late mother.

Throughout his daughters’ childhood, Rich worked arduous hours at the office, only to come home to coach soccer, help with homework, wash dishes, balance the books, and cart the girls to and from various activities. He never seemed to tire of giving to his family, as his vision of success required emotional support and selfless hard work. But it was never that serious. His sometimes corny, sometimes witty brand of humor was always contagious. Laughter constantly filled the house, even amid pointless squabbles and adolescent drama. As his family grew older, its members became closer, the bond remarkable in its improbability. When I think back and ponder how my family unintentionally began and where we are now, I can’t help but appreciate my father’s brilliance through it all. Like his frat brothers’ disbelief at his hard-partying magna cum laude, to the outsider it’s hard to believe he’s pulled off everything he’s accomplished in his life. But I’m never surprised. Just amazed.

When my sister and I left home, my dad often wondered what it all meant, this elusive success. Now that he’d lived the American Dream, what was next? Before he used to feel bad about it. He felt the effects of meaningless materialism, life draining on you for no reason at all. My mom didn’t understand. Psychologists prescribed anti-depressants and called it depression. I called it emptiness because I’d felt it, too. You can have all the promise, wealth, contentment, companionship, and success in the world and still feel empty. Now, somehow, inexplicably, he feels better, good enough to throw the meds back at the psychologists. Whenever I talk to him, I notice he’s not feeling inward as much as he’s thinking outward. Instead of feeling empty, he’s filled with trying to understand what needs to be understood, in the news and at home, emotionally and intellectually. I’m so thankful life is good again for my dad. His brilliance is showing through again. Maybe I’m the only one who has seen it all along, but I couldn’t have lived without it.


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