Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert, 1950-2008

My dad died a little over seven years ago on a Friday the 13th, just like Tim Russert died on Friday the 13th today.

It was around four years later that Tim Russert's book Wisdom of Our Fathers came out. I remember reading through it over four days; I remember how hard it was to put down. It was such an invaluable comfort, even years after my loss, that helped me work through it and put so many things in perspective.

Everyone knows that Tim Russert was an intellectual giant, a pioneer, a standard-setter, civilized, fair, and classy. He also came across as an idealist, like an enthusiastic kid who never tired of the excitement that his passion brought him.

But it's Fathers Day Sunday, and the main reason I felt so compelled to write this is the deep connection I felt with what Russert wrote in that book as a human being, not just a political journalist.

Here's one of my favorite parts in the book, on his son Luke's high school graduation:

"When Luke was graduating from high school, his class asked me to give the commencement address. It was a great honor, but this was the most difficult speech of my life: I had to say something meaningful and inspiring without in any way embarrassing my son. I spoke from the heart and gave the class a kind of blessing: “May you always love your own children as much as your parents love you, as much as Maureen and I love our Luke.” I must have passed the test, because when I finished speaking, the class rose to its feet in appreciation — led by Luke.

Then, one by one, the students came up to receive their diplomas. When it was Luke’s turn, the headmaster motioned for me to take over for a moment. Neither Luke nor I had been prepared for this possibility, and again I wondered how he would react. To my delight, when I gave him the diploma, I received a rib-crushing bear hug from my six-foot-two baby boy. I actually had to say, “Luke, enough. Put me down!” His classmates laughed. It was funny, but there was more in that embrace than humor.

The graduating seniors received their yearbooks that day, and each student had been given a full page to reflect on his high school career. That night, when I got into bed, I began flipping through Luke's copy. His page began with expressions of gratitude. “Dad,” said the first one, “you're the driving force behind it all, and my best friend in the world. Thanks for always having my back. I love you.”

Now if you had asked me to identify a specific moment when I had Luke's back, I couldn't point to one. He was reminding me that tender moments are the ultimate wisdom — whether it's the mutual love and respect that two parents share, a supportive word, or one of the many little comments and gestures of daily life that are more powerful than any lecture. Small moments accumulate and last a lifetime and, what's more, they get carried on into the next generation.

I lay back, smiled, and closed my misty eyes. The pillow had never seemed so soft."

Fathers Day is never an easy day for me, but this weekend, the loss is hitting a little harder. My heart goes out to Luke Russert.

If you're still thinking about what to give your dads on Sunday, go out and get Tim Russert's book. I wish I'd been able to do the same.

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