My dad taught me to never quit

When dad and I walk together, he’ll stop. “I need to rest for a second,” he says, leaning against a pole or a wall, perhaps taking a longer pause into a chair. He’s always done this, at least as long as I’ve known him. When I was a kid, I’d be so annoyed by his breaks that I’d speed ahead of him when he stopped to rest, feeling my belly tighten with embarrassment if kids passed by. Other dads were running and jumping and playing sports, but my dad was stopping to rest. I didn’t understand that his breaks weren’t embarrassing, but lessons in perseverance.

Dad’s hips were smashed in a childhood football accident. After his childhood injury and hip fusion, dad had three adulthood surgeries: two hip replacements and one knee replacement. Most of his life has been spent limping, resting, then moving again. Mostly, he’s moved again and hasn’t wanted to focus on his limp or need to rest. They’re annoyances, something others perceive as a weakness, something he knows can be weaknesses if he lets them be. At home, the only times I’ve seen him lie in bed all day was when he was recovering from surgery—even then, he gets up to move as soon as he can. I’ve heard him moan in agony and scream in frustration amid painful steps, but I’ve never seen him stop walking.

As I grow older, I realize that dad’s refusal to quit has rubbed off on me. When my mom died of cancer, I thought he would quit; perhaps I thought this because I was ready to quit. I was 12 and he was 46 during those weird, sad weeks where everything felt empty and pointless and nightmarish. I’d find books about why it’s OK to cry and hear bits of long phone calls with old friends about feelings I couldn’t quite grasp. I jokingly asked him for $5, which he handed it to me with a blank expression, and knew it didn’t feel right. I attempted to shut down my thoughts entirely, but one kept popping up: was dad going to quit? Was I going to be alone? Does that mean I should quit now?

One day at breakfast, he assured me that he’d keep going. I hadn’t asked, but he told me he wouldn’t quit—blow his brains out, as he put it. “Other guys quit on life, but it’s not who I am, so don’t worry about it,” Maybe he saw a look on my face or perhaps I let on that I was considering quitting, but he told me that he’d be there for me. I nodded and looked away.

Within days, dad was back at work. Someone had to make money. Within weeks, he was taking cooking classes. Someone had to cook. His signature cooking skill became leaving the food on the stove for too long to ensure nothing was undercooked; thus, his signature cooking skill became overcooking. Still, he overcooked food that was on the table for me every night, even after working long hours running his own business. He only quit (over)cooking years later when my stepmom, Evelyn, told him she never again wanted him to cook that awful chicken-potato-onions dish. It just all mushed together, she said, and it was absolutely disgusting. She was right, but I still think fondly upon that shitty, overcooked dish—and very fondly upon well-done sloppy joes, which are shockingly hard to mess up and shockingly delicious to a 13-year-old’s palate when slightly overdone.

Years later, dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the idea of quitting never seemed to cross his mind. When I look back, that battle against cancer seemed easy, an almost assured victory. It wasn’t, of course, because cancer never assures victory, but his life didn’t feel in doubt because he never entertained the idea of giving in to death. A few years later, he was diagnosed with a very rare skin cancer; doctors worked assiduously to find a solution, but dad was nervous. The doctors researched and found a solution they believed could work, but couldn’t assure it would. Within months, dad was cancer-free. After both diagnoses, I could tell he was afraid, but I could also tell that he was well-prepared to battle for his life. I knew he wouldn’t quit until the disease disposed of him or he disposed of the disease.

When I was very young—long before mom died from cancer and long before dad beat it twice—I thought that dad was infallible, a superman of sorts, the same way every lucky kid feels about their dad. I’d wait excitedly by the door for him to get home and ask him about everything he was watching or reading or drinking or working on. “What’d you get me??” was my most excitable question and was often relieved by dad’s proffered hand turning into a tickling claw. He’d spend hours reading to me, likely forming the foundation of one of my favorite lifelong habits. And unbeknownst to me, I even inherited his limp—“Why are you walking like that?” an aunt once asked me; “CROOKED ASS!” middle school bullies shouted. When you have a good dad, even their bad habits seep in.

But we all grow up and notice that our parents falter. They’re humans, after all. I watched dad suffer from death of people he loved and saw him angry, alone, and depressed after bad dates and breakups. I’ve seen him needlessly worried and wondered why he was getting so damn wound-up something he couldn’t help. I’ve been there when he’s made mistakes and can recognize his despondent “DAMNIT” from a lineup of thousands of other despondent damnits.

But I’ve learned more from watching dad in his lowest moments than I ever did thinking he was infallible. I’ve seen him fight out of life’s toughest corners and learned that it’s always worth it to fight, no matter how bad you feel or how outmatched you are. I’ve learned that quitting is tantamount to death. I’ve learned that it’s OK to pause and regain your strength. When dad is down, he pauses for a moment and quickly gets up. For years, it was lost on me that this mentality mirrors his walking breaks. Perseverance is the biggest lesson I’ve ever learned from my dad. He doesn’t quit.

“One thing you’ll notice about anyone who is successful is that they work fucking hard,” he told me over the phone the other day, then taking his standard let-this-sink-in pause. “When you work hard, good things happen.”

He’s told me variations on this mantra for my whole life and he has clearly lived by “work hard: good things.” When he was a kid, he worked to overcome the perception of being a weak cripple, sometimes having to punch his way out of that perception. As an adult, he worked at starting his own business, then worked through the deaths of both his parents and his first wife. He worked through being a single dad, coaching me during the most painful years of my life. He worked through multiple surgeries and months of painful physical therapy. He’s worked through cancer, twice. He worked, undeniably, to give himself and me a shot at a good life even when life didn’t seem to want to be good.

When dad and I walk together these days, I pause with him. There’s no harm in a moment’s rest. I’ll lean back with him or take a moment to stretch, not minding any passers-by. Pausing isn’t embarrassing to me anymore, but the thought of quitting? I shudder to think. I’ve had too many good first-hand examples of dad’s perseverance to give up.

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