When my father was dying last spring several of you asked me to tell you something more about him. I don't know...yes, I do know why that occurred to me this morning; a friend of mine just lost her mother and I thought back to losing my father.
So. You recall that I told you that my father the Master Chief was a proudly intellectual man, an engineer, with an engineer's dislike of obfuscation and insistence on precision in both word and deed. That made him something of an uncomfortable man to be around; he was perfectly capable of the sorts of small evasions and elisions that we use to lubricate our interactions with others, but one could never be sure if, or when, he might simply state an unpalatable truth. Not rudely, perhaps, or as a weapon of social combat, but simply as he saw it.
I'm not sure when this was - probably some time in the early Seventies when I was between puberty and young adulthood and full of the sort of rudely anxious certainty that seems to come with our early teens - but I was holding forth at dinner on the unfair requirement that I perform certain chores during the long summer vacation, in that that vacation time was itself limited and the requirement to put my own entertainment on hold even further seemed grossly burdensome, a needless reduction of my already-painfully-short free time. The Master Chief listened to this gravely, and nodded, and replied:
"Well, yes, but you still have more free time than you will ever have again in your life. After your school days are over you will never have this much freedom again. Not just less but much less. You'll probably never have more than two weeks vacation the rest of your life. You'll work at your job that means five days a week or more, no spring breaks, no summer vacation, no half-days, no two weeks a Christmas. Just work and two weeks a year."
This seemed appallingly, punitively unfair, and I said so. Was that it? School and work, work and school, endlessly and forever with only the thinnest of hopes of a rest? What was the point, then? What was the end? When did it stop?
"Once you're older, perhaps, if you've planned and worked carefully, there might be a "retirement" when you will have all the free time you could hope for." he noted. I wailed that this seemed even worse; the only hope for freedom was to hope to be to ancient to enjoy it. What hope then?
"Well, then you die." was his conclusion. Dinner done, he retired to his chair to smoke a pipe and mark up the paperwork he'd brought home with him.
My mother was horrified; "Jack!" she exclaimed, and hurried to reassure me that life wasn't that bleak. But I think that my father was well satisfied to remind me, hedonistic youth of the hothouse hedonism of the Seventies and the relative wealth that his work had brought us, that at bottom what mattered was living up to your promises, taking satisfaction from work and life well-done, and dying without regrets, without leaving your works unfinished.
And that was my father, or at least a part of him.
John L. "Jack" Lawes Jr. 1927-2015