November 15, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. In the meantime, be kind
An appreciation for my father-in-law.
I’m thinking of lessons Walt taught me over the years. That’s the kind of thing you do, I suppose, when someone close to you dies. My father-in-law had been fading away from us, slowly, steadily. How long? It feels like a long time. Then he left us Sunday. Just like that. It was as if he decided he’d had enough.
Walt seemed so worldly. That’s what I remember most. His wife, Theresa, looked like Elizabeth Taylor. They were well-dressed. They were staying in Potsdam’s most expensive hotel. They were taking us out to the village’s most expensive bistro. I was out of my element. Take-out Chinese was still exotic. I felt the urgent need to impress.
So I’m thinking about lessons Walt taught me. Perhaps those lessons might be shared, might be useful to other people, even to total strangers. Walt was not a believer of any sort. Except in “Murphy’s Law.” If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. In the meantime, be kind.
I don’t know if I understood the depth of kindness when I first met him. It was 1996. I was a student. I met his daughter in class. I had long, coarse and disheveled hair. I had cash for haircuts or cigarettes. (Cigarettes won.) I had quit music school. I was now studying and writing poetry. I had nothing lined up post-grad. I was not the kind of prospect who presented himself as a good one for his daughter.
He seemed so worldly. That’s what I remember most. His wife, Theresa, looked like Elizabeth Taylor. They were well-dressed. They were staying in Potsdam’s most expensive hotel. They were taking us out to the village’s most expensive bistro. I was out of my element. Take-out Chinese was still exotic. I felt the urgent need to impress.
In retrospect, Walt was trying to impress me. I asked him years later, after his grandchild was born, why he approved of his daughter seeing an obvious “slacker” who had no money, no family support, no known opportunities for the future and who spent all his time reading. More or less, he said three things. It wasn’t up to him. I was smart. I would figure out how to make a living. And “I could see you loved Gretchen.”
That was how it was with him. Life was hard enough. If it could go wrong, it would. What’s important is knowing what’s important. That means the basics. It would have been totally fair for him to say, “Are you sure about this guy?” But he never doubted his daughter. He never doubted me. And when I say never, I mean not once — a feat for the father-in-law of a hack writer. If he did doubt me, he kept it to himself. After all, he understood the basics. “I could see you loved Gretchen.”
Back to kindness: In 1997, Walt leased a brand-new Honda Civic after Gretchen and I graduated. That might not seem special. Parents do this all the time for their kids. But understand things from my perspective. First, he didn’t lease it for me. He leased it for his daughter. I was acutely, I’d say painfully, aware of this. He never said a word, though.
Second, sure, parents do this kind of thing all the time for their kids, to give them a good start in their adult lives, but not mine. After I left their house, no more support. I was an adult, financially, at 18. I did ask for help once. The answer was no. I never asked again. (There are lots of reasons for this, most of them good, but that’s for another time.)
So along came this man who scarcely knew me, who had reason to doubt me, who could have said to his daughter, “this car is yours, not his,” but who never did or say anything of the sort, never would, but who instead helped me in ways my own parents could not and would not. You might say he took a chance on me, but I think Walt would disagree. If it could go wrong, it would. In the meantime, be kind.
Kindness is all you can do in this life. After all, time robs us. Everyone grows old. Everyone grows full of sleep. In Walt’s case, it was a double robbery. He had Alzheimer’s. His mom and sisters did, too. His pants got to be too complex for him. Eating and drinking were no longer the pleasure they had been. Just being alive was a daily cruelty. I believe there was a light on, amid the fog, asking him to be kind one last time.
I love you, Walt.
I miss you.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.