Remembering Bob: on caring and acceptance

What I admire most about my Dad is also what most puzzles me—his capacity for acceptance. I have struggled to learn, or even to comprehend, his accepting attitude to life.

He loved plants and children. He more than accepted the form growing things took in a given season, and their transformation over the years into something else. We were his great joy. But us, he loved. What astonishes me about Bob is how similar his attitude was to what he probably couldn’t love. How could he face the world that way—how could he never fail to face life, how could he keep from ever turning away from it? I don’t have an answer, but it’s a question I want to explore. This is what I call his acceptance, and it extended to nearly everything.

I never knew Bob to have ambitions for life. What I mean is, he never wanted or strove for it to take a shape other than the shape it took. He disdained regret, or maybe it would be better to say it made no sense to him. He never had a moment for regret or even that subtle form of regret called nostalgia for the past. I’ve always had dreams, ideas, and aspirations, and so I questioned him often about how and why he avoided entertaining thoughts about how things could be or how they could have been, but I was never able to wrap my head around it. Anyway, he had a strong sense of the futility of comparing what is with what isn’t, what might be, or what was before. For him, the real took absolute primacy over the ideal.

If I didn’t share his personal lack of ambition, I admired it. However, his lack of interest in reforms or revolutions in his own life went along with a lack of interest in political or cultural transformation. We argued about that a lot. Despite his critical eye for power structures and systems of coercion, he was sceptical about forms of resistance to established orders. He was as suspicious of the idea of progress as he was of nostalgia for a lost golden age. He was sceptical about anyone or any theory that claimed to provide answers, whether in the form of a solution to our problems, or even in the form of a diagnosis or explanation of them. Fad diets, religion, self-help, and political action all belonged together as strategies to deny reality by holding out a vain hope for its future perfection in another world, or a different world, or a better you.

We butted heads over this. More and more I came to see his political cynicism as a not very rare form of conservative pessimism—the attitude that sneers at progress and uses realism and ‘human nature’ as excuses for not fighting for things to get better. But Bob’s heart had nothing in common with the heart of the conservative. If he shared their cynicism, his was motivated by sympathy for those crushed by the wheel of progress, while theirs is an excuse for complacency and self-serving.

If he were here he’d have something to say about how I’ve characterised his views. If he were here we’d argue, maybe until one of us got upset. One of the funny things about my Dad was how someone so capable of acceptance could be so stubborn, so opinionated, and so obstinate in his views. I miss arguing with him, but I know his point of view so well that I have it inside me as a kind of Socratic daemon, keeping me from getting too infatuated with any of my own theories. I’m so grateful that I have his point of view to keep me grounded. Losing his voice is not what scares me about losing him.

More than anything, Bob accepted life. This was as evident in his garden, that so many of you have enjoyed, as anywhere. Many gardens are reigned over by tyrants who have a plan for what form they would like the plant life there to take, and the most beautiful gardens are reigned over by authoritarians who will realise that plan at any cost, never mind the watering, synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, and back-ache that it takes to even begin to try to make life conform to your plans for it.

But because he cared for the garden, acceptance somehow did not mean letting be, letting alone. He gathered seaweed from the beach for fertilizer. He pruned the apple trees and plum trees. He kept the blackberries and morning glory from taking over. This is the paradox of his acceptance—that it was an acceptance out of and as care.

It was with care, also, that he accepted people, and especially children. He cared for children and plants with one and the same intention of non-interference. Caring for us, he accepted us as and for who we were, and he also accepted us when we became something else. That is to say, his care was never conditional, it never depended on us fulfilling some expectation he had for us.

These were beautiful qualities, but they didn’t necessarily mean that my Dad was always easy to get along with. As generous as he was with his care, my Dad couldn’t be coerced into relating to you on your own terms. Nor did his acceptance mean that he responded to pressure. He was generous because he cared, not because he was eager to please, and so no eagerness to please could be appealed to to get him to do what he didn’t want to, or wasn’t comfortable with.

I’ll give you an example: I tried to get him to come visit me in England the whole time I was living there. There was so much I wanted to share with him that I thought he would love: operas, galleries, pies. He never really entertained the idea, except that he would say that when I got married or graduated he’d come then. When I was younger, this disappointed me. But my disappointment passed, and by the time I was graduating and he told me that he wasn’t going to visit—this was just before he was diagnosed with cancer—he was apologetic. By then, though, I knew this: it didn’t mean anything at all about how much he loved me, or how proud he was of me. My Dad had an extraordinarily strong sense of self, and that did make relating to him easy, because it meant that what he did with you or for you, he did wholeheartedly.

I don’t know how to care with acceptance the way Bob did. And this is what puzzles me about his acceptance. To care, I think, is to will or to wish that things be a certain way. You can’t care ambivalently, without investment and without willfullness. You can only care conditionally. To care for someone is to care for them because of who they are, and to wish for them not to become something else, something you don’t much care for. When you care you do what you can to ward off disease and death, or at least you wish them away, and in caring you also make yourself an enemy of degradations of character.

I can only understand care in this conditional sense, as care that things be some way and not another. How can you care without wanting what you care for to thrive, and therefore without being unwilling to accept its failure? In other words, how can care reconcile itself to acceptance? This is the sublime paradox of my Dad’s acceptance.

This paradox was most clearly on display in his attitude to death. Bob started thinking and talking about death a lot, long before his diagnosis. We used to worry he was morbid, and that his emphasis on death drained his energy for living. He stopped travelling too early, I thought, didn’t push himself in his activities. Reconciling with the eventuality of death was important to him, though, and he didn’t think that he could do it while grasping at vivacity.

It was essential to accept death, for him, because only then could he accept life. He’s right. Except, that here the paradox crops up again. To love life is to want life, and more life. How could he then accept its absolute destruction? But he understood that to love life is to love the finitude of life. Maybe that’s the key to the paradox—to care for something is to care for it as it truly is, knowing that that means it will change and eventually end. But even knowing that, how can the will content itself with the destruction of its object?

I am who I am because I enjoyed my Dad’s acceptance. I could never doubt it. I woke up from a dream once—I rarely remember my dreams, but I remember this one—in which my Dad was telling me he was disappointed in me. I laughed to myself, thinking that this should be about as easy to interpret as any dream ever was. But I also laughed because I knew that it was so far from the truth. His acceptance made me safe, and because I was so blessed to grow up with it, it continues to keep me safe. I can’t fathom how much strength the gift of his acceptance has given me. I’m so grateful to him for that.

Nevertheless, I’m afraid that this acceptance is lost. Bob’s acceptance of his death made it possible for me to accept it. But this is what scares me about losing him—that this tremendous and perhaps unique capacity is lost with him. I don’t know if I’m capable of it, partly because I struggle to understand it. I want to be capable of it.

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