One year ago today, my father, Thomas Viertel passed away at the age of 84. As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, his life ended with a mercifully and heartbreakingly short battle with lymphoma. Actually, it’s hard to call it a battle, since he decided early on that he was not going to pursue the aggressive treatment necessary to fight the cancer. He died peacefully in his living room, with my mother’s hand in his own.
But I’m not here to write about how my father died. I’m here to tell you about how he lived, the kind of man he was, and the kind of father he was to me.
My earliest memory of my father is of him sitting in a yellow easy chair, reading by lamplight in the living room. I had climbed out of bed, and was standing in the hall between my room and the living room. My dad looked up, saw me, and calmly told me to go back to bed.
A lot of my early memories of him include reading. I’d even venture to say that reading, books, learning; represent a common thread throughout my memories of my father. It was, after all, the truest part of his identity. Reading was not just a past time with my dad. It was how he stayed young, how he kept the lens through which he viewed the world up to date.
I believe that reading, learning, digesting new ideas is the integral element of a man who wrote for a literary magazine run by a professor who lost his job to McCarthyism, who protested the displacement of immigrant families for the construction of Dodger Stadium, who kept grapes off his family’s table in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the UFW, who walked picket lines with my teachers and who, at the age of 77, protested the Iraq War.
My dad did not just read. He devoured ideas, and it was critically important for him to truly understand the intent of the authors he read. So he carried with him a book bag containing his current reading, a thesaurus, and a very well-used dictionary. If he didn’t know a word, he looked it up. He could even use the thesaurus to gain insight into the author’s intent by looking over the words that the author did not use. That’s the kind of reader he was.
But that means little to a child. As a child, he was Daddy and he read books to me, books that I read to my kids today. He carried me on his shoulders. He tried to play catch with me, even though he was not an athlete. He came to all my games, and concerts and plays. In short, he was always there, always raising me. He was slow to anger, a steady rock in our family. He taught me, early on, not to fear people who look or sound different than me. He demonstrated that, as a man, I had nothing to fear from strong, accomplished women.
And for all that, he was funny. He had an outrageous sense of humor. He especially loved Halloween. One year he went to his office party wearing pajamas, a bathrobe and fake teeth carrying a sign that read “Love for Sale.” He came up with a brilliant, legendary menu for Cannibal’s Café when I went as Soufflé’ Andre’ in sixth grade. He was a fun dad.
But if you really wanted to know who he was, what made him tick, where he was at home, all you had to do was go with him into nature, especially forests. He was born in Vienna, Austria and raised in California, but spending the last five years of his life among the trees and waterways of the Pacific Northwest must have been like paradise to him. I remember a couple of hikes with him, late in his life, one in Glacier National Park and the other in Olympic National Park. You could see his eyes light up in wonder, and you could just tell that he felt like he was in the presence of artistry that made any work by a human hand pale in comparison.
I miss my dad, his patience, his gentle spirit, his humor, his unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I have my own kids now, and I can only hope that I can be the kind of father to them that their grandpa was to me.