The Summer Curse 8/29/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Sad news today. As it turns out, my father’s cognitive and physical abilities have been declining rapidly, and he has been placed into a rest home.

My regular readers must be wondering what I’m talking about. For those who do not know, my father died not very long ago. Today I’m talking about a man I think of as my “academic father”. See, in my family, I was the first person to pursue an education beyond an associate’s degree. Academia is a very different world from the one that I grew up in, but fortunately for me, I didn’t have to face learning about it alone.

I was fortunate enough to have crossed paths with a couple who were teaching at two different and very prestigious institutions in Boston. For privacy issues, I will not reveal which as I’m sure his wife doesn’t want publicity at this time, but in exchange for room and board I watched their middle-school aged child after he got home from school. The father of the family and I developed a close relationship, so close, in fact, that I tend to think of him as my second father, and in the usual string of summer events, today I learned of his declining physical and mental health.

I don’t understand it. This news joins the news that my father had passed away this year. A few years ago, I had learned that my mother died, the same year in fact that my dog died in the summer. The summer before that my divorce was finalized and the year before that I lost my cat and my wife threw me out wanting said divorce. Two years before that, in the greatest tragedy of them all, in the summer I married her.

My academic father was a great man. I’ll never forget playing racquetball with him on his campus, and, yes, despite the fact that he was significantly older than I, he used to beat me like I was a chuck steak. I didn’t mind; he was always generous about his victories. Through him, I met many Nobel laureates although I rarely realized they were so prestigious. As it turns out, Nobel laureates, at least the ones that I met, were very kind and generous people. They’ve reached the pinnacle of their careers and had nothing left for which to struggle. My friend was not a Nobel laureate, but he was very much at home with them.

He was interesting. He didn’t hold station in life with any real regard. My parents came to visit, no doubt because they were worried about these people they didn’t know, and my academic mother and father hosted them generously. My mother couldn’t stand my academic father; she felt he was just far too sexist. I personally disagree, but without really understanding him better, I can see why she would think that.

He introduced me to the more cultured parts of the world, and I allowed him to do so. For example, until I lived with them, I didn’t drink alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, I had tried alcohol. I tried beer and wine and it just never was something I wanted to get involved with. What’s more, up to that point, my only experience with alcohol was really with the fellow students in my undergraduate studies, and let’s be honest; most college students do not respect alcohol. They drink to get drunk, and I spent four years watching them behave like idiots. My academic family, on the other hand, shared a bottle of wine (at least one) every night, not because they wanted to get drunk, but because they truly enjoyed wine. It was finally a healthy environment to learn about alcohol, and although I don’t drink today, I’m glad I took that opportunity to learn about it under their guidance.

One of the funnier stories was when his son from his first marriage, who was my age, and his fiancée stopped by. My academic father introduced me to more than wine; he taught me how to smoke a cigar (of which I’ve smoked many, probably as many as six by now) and to appreciate the complimentary flavors of cigars and cognac (or brandy). My academic mother was out that night, and he, and his son, and his presumed daughter-in-law (I’m afraid it didn’t work out), and I were sitting around the dining room table, all smoking cigars and drinking Cognac. Now, my academic mother was okay with smoking cigars in the house but always wants the windows open, something that we realized we had forgotten to do as the thick cloud of smoke danced around us when we heard her car pulling into the driveway. “Oh, shit, she’s going to kill us,” he said, “We forgot to open the windows!” I must have been tipsy because immediately I replied, “Well, let’s not tell her!”

It’s astounding how important people can be to us. I’ll forever love my academic father and mother and owe much of my success to him. I am a significantly different man, and a better man at that, than I would be were it not for his guidance. This will weigh heavily on my heart, of that I have no doubt.

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