My father-in-law died this morning. He had been sick, so it wasn’t a shock. And yet it was.
In my youth, as I daydreamed about my married life and extended family, someone like Don wasn’t in the picture. I imagine when he thought about daughters-in-law, a career-minded, opinionated, liberal, Jewish girl like me was not at the top of his list.
And yet, when Dave and I showed up for Christmas, unannounced at his and Barb’s door that snowy, cold morning in December, 1992, he graciously opened his house, mind, and most of all, his heart.
Many would characterize Don as the quintessential curmudgeon, but that’s not the Don I was fortunate to know and love. The times we spent together, he shed that gruff exterior as easily as slipping off a winter coat.
When confronted with our Jewish wedding, he eagerly took part as Dave’s Best Man, standing under the chuppa, wearing a yarmulke and participating in the prayers with tears in his eyes. At Brooke’s baby-naming just 3 years later, he and Barb made the trip from St. Joe, participating with gusto in the festivities. When he played with Brooke, his eyes would twinkle – a mirror of Brooke’s eyes – as he rolled on the floor with her. When we played the interminable card game, Screw Your Neighbor, he would make up the most bizarre swear words ever, to express his frustration (“Oh Bite-O-Roso!”).
But my favorite memories of Don are of the long walks we would take, just him, Brooke and me during our annual Christmas trips to Michigan. In an effort to get Baby Brooke to stop babbling and take a nap, I would resort to the oldest trick in the book – motion. So in the darkest, coldest months of winter, we’d bundle up, throw Brooke in the stroller, heap on the blankets and Don and I would walk . . . . and walk . . . and walk . . . . until she finally fell asleep. These walks were the only time I spent alone with Don. We talked about family, life and matters of the heart. (We stayed away from politics!<g>) We connected in a way neither one of us ever expected or took for granted. I learned so much about him and from him.
Now as I reflect on the time we spent together, the word that comes to mind is dharma. Loosely translated, it’s the Sanskrit word for duty. Don had a keen sense of duty – to his family and his country. A devoted husband, dedicated family man and proud Navy Master Chief, nothing was more important to him. His tough exterior belied the fact that his commitment to family, friends and country knew no bounds. Such strength and dedication could only come from someone with limitless dharma – dharma of the heart.
In loving memory
Donald P. Phillips
April 4, 1930 – July 27, 2011