Questions for My Father

The urge to call my father sneaks up on me from time-to-time.

In the last week alone we have weighed the cost of solar panels, my dentist propositioned me for my wisdom teeth, and I have wondered if there is anyone you can actually trust at a car dealership.

Until a couple of years ago, these would have been questions for my father.

As I passed from one stage of life to the next, my father was always there to provide insight on my latest questions about adulting. We talked about things benign - the weather, the crops, politics, and the team. My father was the son of a farmer, and so I quickly learned how important it was to know how much rain we got last. 

While there was always plenty to talk about, as my father got older, I started wondering more about his life than just sharing my own. This was especially true after having kids of my own as I realized how much my first steps into parenthood were shaped by him. I became curious about what life was like for him as a child, what my grandfather was like as a dad, and how all of that affected his approach to fatherhood. 

As the generations in our family transitioned - my father becoming a grandfather, me becoming a dad - I realized there was a lot more I wanted to know about his life. There was so much I didn't know, but I wasn’t really sure what to ask.

Around this time I came across a book called Questions for My Father. The book was written by Vincent Staniforth in 1998 after his father passed suddenly from a stroke. Staniforth was just 30 years old when his father died, and in the years following, he collected the questions he wished he could still ask his dad. 

On January 8th, 2013, I ordered the book. 

Life was busy at the time. We were in the midst of the basketball season. As an attorney, my father was just starting tax season. Neither of us had time to sit down for a question and answer session. The book found a home on a shelf in the living room where it waited patiently for the right time to be opened again.

Seven years later, in the fall of 2020, my father started to experience an unusual abdominal pain. He gained an alarming amount of weight in a short period of time, and his usual energy for his summer hobbies (farming and gardening) was waning. Something wasn’t right.

On Sunday, October 11th, 2020, my sister took my father to the emergency room where he was admitted to the University of Iowa Hospitals. His text that night read:

"At the u for tests probably a few days"

Three days later, he was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. We would later learn that tumors were discovered in his pancrase, liver, and abdominal wall. 

By this point, we were six months into the pandemic and visiting hours were severely limited at the hospital. Only one person was allowed to see him each day, and since I lived out of town and had kids that had just returned to school, I had to settle for phone calls instead. 

As he grew weaker, these calls became difficult for him. Our opportunities to talk were brief. His condition rapidly deteriorated, and he seemed more and more out of it by the day. 

Less than two weeks later, deemed too weak to return home, and out of treatment options, he was transferred to palliative care. The nurses agreed to look the other way so that all three of us kids could be there with him as he passed quietly into the night. 

As my father slipped away from us he left us much to sort out. A boatload of conflicting feelings, cherished memories, enough stuff to fill an episode of hoarders, and a book of unanswered questions.

Before my father’s passing, I remember seeing that book on the shelf. Every time it looked back at me, I imagined sitting on the back porch, perhaps with a cigar, peppering him with questions for my father. I would always smile at the thought, sure that someday would come.

And now three years later, I still regret not making someday today.

What remains in my father’s wake is a lesson. There is still pain that comes from carrying too many words that were left unsaid, of too many moments that were left unmade, and of too many questions that were left unanswered. I am reminded of this every time I reach for my phone with questions for my father.

As more of my friends are losing their parents, I cannot urge them strongly enough to make time to ask the questions they’ve always wondered about. As Ferris Bueller famously said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

That little book of questions has also found a new home in the backseat of our car. My kids are nine and six - they haven’t thought all that much about their father’s life outside of being their dad. The generational shift that prompted so much curiosity in me is still years away.

However, we spend a lot of time in the car now that they are getting involved in more and more activities. There are moments of opportunity for questions to be asked even if they don’t yet have a context to understand the answers.

And so every now and then, on the way to practice or some other random event, a question will arise from the backseat.

“Dad, what do you hope for me when I grow up?”

“Dad, what were some of the turning points in your life?”

“Dad, if you could go back and change one event in your life, what would it be, and how would you change it?”

While my opportunity to learn more about my father has come and gone, we have created time and space today so our kids will one day be left with a book of answered questions from their father.

Food for thought.

- Nate Sanderson

Co-Host of the Coaching Culture Podcast

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