Viewpoints

Saying goodbye to Dad

Bill Whalen and his father, William Francis Whalen.
Bill Whalen and his father, William Francis Whalen. Courtesy of Bill Whalen

This is a belated thank-you note to Gov. Jerry Brown for signing the End of Life Option Act.

It comes late because, as the governor was reaching his final verdict, I was distracted by my father, who was in the final days of a decade-long fight with prostate cancer.

We laid my father to rest last Tuesday, on a crisp sunny morning across the river from the nation’s capital, where he spent most of his career as a federal budget officer.

Here’s hoping other cancer patients find comfort in the governor’s decision to allow them this option as their time and medical choices dwindle – a concept, by the way, my father wholly supported.

Here’s also hoping that Brown doesn’t shy away from addressing the paradox of a Golden State graying faster than the national pace, an aging population with access to treatments that extend life but also complicate matters by delaying the inevitable.

Right-to-die decisions, palliative and hospice care, improving doctor-patient protocols: They all merit further study and discussion. My father won’t be around to see that day.

As I write this, it strikes me that he’d probably hate knowing that he was the topic of this conversation. My father didn’t brag or self-promote. Google the name William Francis Whalen and you’ll find little in the way of an Internet footprint, other than his obituary. For him, social media was tantamount to a social disease. So I will make a few points about the man I called Dear Old Dad.

His biggest break in life came from, of all things, the federal government. In 1952, the United States Navy deemed my father officer material. The agreement: four years of college on an ROTC scholarship.

In return, he would give four years of service. My father extended that four years to more than 30 of active and reserve duty. I think both sides got a bargain. Moral of the story: For my father and thousands of people like him who were children of the Great Depression, government offered a path to a better life. Food for thought, for those who reflexively trash the public sector.

Education and economy were my father’s twin obsessions. He was bothered by what he saw as successive generations’ inability to learn history, appreciate the fine arts or execute something as basic as good grammar. Woe to those who abused and overused the word “like” in his presence. He loved to save, not spend. Money didn’t burn a hole in my father’s pockets.

In his latter years, the budget-balancer in him searched, mostly in vain, for a political leader with the guts to tell folks to stop buying iPads and start amassing IRAs, which was funny for a guy who obsessed over the health of his Apple stock.

Though acting the part of a curmudgeon (the grumpy old man was a put-on, mostly to amuse and perplex his daughter and her two girls), my father was in fact a bleeding heart. Not that anyone would know.

This man who rarely talked to strangers spent his retired years sending anonymous donations to people who he’d learned had fallen on hard times. Maybe we credit it to his being a product of his environment: In the gritty mill town outside Pittsburgh where my father spent his childhood, neighbors shared their good fortune with people in need. Would that more Americans live by the same creed.

My father was special in ways too long to list. Then again, whose parents aren’t? A word of advice: While you have the chance, thank your folks for their sacrifices, and learn about their journeys so you can honor them properly.

Trust me: For a father gone but not forgotten, it was worth getting to know his life, for all who knew and loved him, a life that was well worth living and lived oh so well.

Bill Whalen, a regular contributor, is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. His most recent piece for The Sacramento Bee, “California’s Hall of Fame needs better selections,” appeared on Oct. 8. He can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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