Dad’s Day

I write a lot in this space about my sweet mama, and how much I miss her since cancer snatched her away in October 2006. I don’t write as much about my dad, and today, on Father’s Day, it’s high time I remedied that inequity.

My dad and I are a lot alike: opinionated, confident, and possessing a strong sense of right & wrong. He was the originator of the “it’s just what you do” idea. He lived it and preached it. One of his many sayings is “Good things happen to people who get up and go to work every day.” He instilled a rock-solid work ethic in my brother and me, and that is one of the many things for which I’m grateful to him.

It all started, I guess, when my dad’s dad, Elias “Louis” Katapodis, was born on July 20, 1893 in the village of Haradiatika, on the island of Levkas, in western Greece off the Ionian Sea. Life was hard, and Louie wanted more.

At age 21, Louie emigrated from Greece to the United States in pursuit of a better life. He and his brother John (for whom my brother is named) departed the port of Patras, Greece, on the passenger ship Patris and arrived at Ellis Island April 5, 1914. I have copies of their ship’s passenger list as well as Louie’s Petition for U.S. Citizenship, dated January 19, 1925. After landing at Ellis Island, Louie and Uncle John traveled to Iowa to work on the railroad, and Louie ended up in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, where he met Mona Mae. He married her and they and had 3 boys. My dad, Leon, was the middle child, on the far right.Louie was immensely proud of his U.S. citizenship, and apparently hung the framed document in his bedroom. He had just enough formal education to read the newspaper and pass the citizenship test, but  he could never read cursive writing, and neither he nor Mona Mae ever learned to drive a car. Louie learned enough math to work a cash register, and worked hard. He had a reputation as a prankster and was always smiling.

Sadly, Louis died before I was born so I never met him but I’ve heard about what a great man he was. He came to the Unites States speaking little English and with very little money, but with hard work and determination–the typical immigrant story–he prospered. He raised his boys to love their family and their country, and he instilled the value of a good education. He taught my dad how important it is “to keep your nose clean” and he wasn’t talking about hygiene. My dad passed that lesson on to my brother and me, and I distinctly remember him talking about how his greatest fear as a child was that he would disappoint his dad. Me, too.

One of my great regrets is that circumstances never allowed me to meet Louie, my Papou, but I’ve been told my entire life that he would have loved me, and I’m sure the feeling would have been mutual.

My dad was a star athlete, excelling in both baseball and football. He passed that trait on to his grandkids, no doubt. In fact, my dad taught Payton to hit a pitched ball at age 2, and perhaps started Pay’s lifelong baseball love affair. Thanks to my dad’s genes and tutelage, Payton looked like this on the ball field, even at a young age. 

My dad not only passed on the baseball legacy but also loves watching Payton’s games. He thinks nothing of traveling 525 miles one way to be in the stands for Pay’s Little League games and for Pay’s year-round team’s many tournaments. Last year, Dad traveled to watch Pay’s All Star team in the State Championship in Tyler, TX, cheering them on while I was stuck in yet another hospital room.

Watching Payton play baseball is one of my dad’s favorite things, followed closely by hanging out with his grandkids. He’s been there from Day One in each of his 4 grandkids’ lives, and in fact, on the day that Payton was born, Dad was visiting my nephew Andrew in Kansas. When he got the word that Pay was making his appearance into this world a few weeks early, he jumped in the car and high-tailed it across 3 states to meet his second grandson. When Macy was born, he kept Payton for us and when the coast was clear and she was safely delivered into the world, Dad brought Pay up to the hospital. I will never forget watching him standing over her incubator with a tear of joy rolling down his cheek.  Wish I had a photo of that!

He never got tired of holding his grandbabies, and he’s logged a lot of hours chasing them around playgrounds, taking them to the zoo, and relishing their company.

I love how you can see Dad just over Andrew’s shoulder in the left corner of this photo. Three cousins having a snack while their Papou watches over them is pretty good stuff.

My parents loved their grandparent role immensely, and I know my dad is as sad as I am that YaYa didn’t get to see her grandkids grow up.

Dad has spent a lot of time hanging with my kids in the pool,

and he’s been around for the first day of school. 

He was proud to be a featured guest for kindergarten read-aloud, and Macy was so happy to have him there. 

Holidays are a special time for my dad, and he loves to have everyone gathered around a table laden with good food. That first Thanksgiving after my mom died was brutal, but even though it had only been a few weeks since he lost his beloved Bride, he insisted that the show must go on and he proudly presided from the head of the table. My mom would have liked that.

Every Christmas, the biggest and best gift comes from Papou, and he’s always there to gather up the trash, insert batteries into new toys, and open the wine and carve the roast beast. 

My dad has taught me a lot of things over the years, from looking both ways before crossing the street to the satisfaction of a job well done. He’s been a guiding influence for my brother and me in how we raise our families. He set the example we follow in parenting: love your kids, teach them well, call them out on their wrongdoings, and have lots of fun. He used to give me his chewed piece of Juicy Fruit gum every evening when he got home from work. The germ-o-phobe I grew up to become would never chew someone else’s already-chewed gum, but as a kid I didn’t think twice about it, and it seemed like a special ritual between the two of us, one of many special things we shared. He sang “You Are My Sunshine” to me every night before bed as he tucked me in.

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, he was by her side every step of the way. When it became evident that her cancer battle was one she would not win, he faced that cruel truth head-on; a great and important lesson for me and one that I would employ just a handful of years after her death. If it freaked out my dad to learn that his little girl also had cancer, he never let on. He simply told me that he had every confidence that I would map out a plan to deal with it and execute that plan. He has supported and encouraged me, never missing an opportunity to tell me how proud he is of how I’ve waged my battle, and reminding me that my mama would be proud, too.

While I no longer need my nightly song and tuck-in, I still love my daddy and feel so grateful to have him in my life.

Happy Father’s Day to all the daddies out there.


Ithaka

How appropriate after yesterday’s post that the first thing I read today is an excerpt from the poem “Ithaka” by Constatin Cavafy. Remember that yesterday’s post contained a photo depicting my personal vision of paradise? Guess what Ithaka looks like?

Also appropriate is that Amy Hoover showed up on my doorstep last night with a real-life superhero cape, which I clearly need to continue this “journey.” She doesn’t need a cape, because she really is a superhero, but her youngest son, Carter, has one and was sweet enough to loan it to me. We’re changing the C for Carter to C for Cancer-killer. I love the cape.

I’ve been struggling with the “journey” part of my recovery from major reconstruction surgery. I’m not a journey kind of girl; I’m all about the destination. Don’t care how we get there, it’s the getting there that matters to me.

Well, guess what? On a “cancer journey” you’re never “there” and the idea of being “done” is laughable because there really is no end point. There are transitions and transformations, and at some point one does graduate from cancer patient to cancer survivor, but there aren’t any signposts or mile markers along the way, so hell if I know where I am in this whole journey. I can say that so far, to quote the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Enter Constantin Cavafy. Fellow Greek, also a wordsmith (although he was way, way better at the craft than I). He was born and died on the same day, April 29 (1863-1933). I must say, that’s a terrible way to celebrate a birthday; I hope he got a piece of cake before he croaked. I also think it’s terrible, although understandable, that his family chose to Americanize their surname, Kavafis. My dad’s dad came over from “the Old Country,” as the Greeks refer to the homeland, speaking no English with very little money, like millions of other immigrants. Once he settled and raised his family, he wanted them to be Americanized, to shake off the immigrant stink that was considered unsavory, even though the USA is purported to be a melting pot. Thankfully, my Papou did not Americanize our surname, although my dad did change the spelling slightly in 8th grade, from Katopodis to Katapodis, to make it easier for the sports announcers to pronounce it properly; Kat-uh-po-dus instead of Ka-top-uh-dus. True story.

So Kavafis becomes Cavafy, and Constantin writes some poetry. He published more than 150 poems, the most well-known, “Ithaka,” after he turned 40. Some might say he’s a late bloomer, but those of us in the over-40 crowd say, Giddyup.

“Ithaka” was written in 1894, revised in 1910, published in 1911 then published in English in 1924. Talk about a journey: 16 years to complete, then another 13 years to reach a wide audience. I hope Constantin was more patient than I am. I’m sure glad he had a few good years between the poem’s success and his death, and I hope he savored it.

Some believe that the subject of “Ithaka” is Odysseus, from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. I think, however, it applies to anyone who is on a journey, and although Ithaka was the finish line or end point for Odysseus, the location is superceded by the ideal.

“Ithaka” begins with some advice for the traveler, which I think applies to lots of journeys (although on my particular journey I don’t have to “hope the voyage is a long one” because it is, boy howdy it is).

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.

Well, I certainly have encountered my share of Laistrygonians, Cyclops and angry Poseidons in this “cancer journey.” While Cavafy referenced these giants (cannibals, one-eyed monsters, and the God of the Sea, respectively), I believe such bad-boys take numerous forms and can also be representative of disease, infection, and hardship.

Ok, so far my voyage has indeed been long, with what some would consider adventure and discovery, and full of bad guys, and I honestly haven’t been afraid of them. Frustrated by and utterly sick of them, yes, but not afraid. So far so good.

I’ve tried to keep my thoughts raised high, and thanks to my mom’s “walk on the sunny side of the street” schooling, I think I’ve done that. Sure there have been some bad days, but I’m not going to sit around asking, Why me? when it really doesn’t matter, and it certainly doesn’t change anything.

I can’t say that I have a “rare excitement” stirring my spirit and body, although maybe I did while on morphine. More likely it was while on Versed. That’s one of my favorites; such a happy place.

“Ithaka” goes on to extol the pleasure of steaming into unseen harbors on a summer morning to “buy fine things” and “gather knowledge from their scholars.” Hmmm, exploring, shopping, and learning: now that sounds like my kind of trip. Cavafy implores us to keep Ithaka always in our mind and to remember that “arriving there is what you are destined for.”

Now here’s the part that really speaks to me today, as I continue to struggle with the down-time of recovery, as I want to be “back to normal” and wait impatiently for the passage of time and the reaching of milestones that will prove that it is so.

But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way.

I have a problem with the idea of the journey lasting for years, even though I know that it’s reality. I can accept it, but I don’t have to like it. I do hope that I am indeed old by the time I reach the island, and I already feel wealthy with all I have gained on the way.