My Father Died Suddenly. He Was Just Starting a New Life.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 28 2013 10:53 AM

My Dad Was Not Ready to Die

Just as he was starting a new life, he was gone.

(Continued from Page 1)

My dad did not especially want to be a granddad. He was not one of those parents who needle their kid to have kids—quite the reverse. When, under difficult circumstances, I was expecting the birth of Eurydice, my dad had one word of advice for me. “Let me give you one word of advice,” he said. I perked up my ears: It was not so often he proffered advice to me. “Don’t send baby pictures. People hate baby pictures. Keep baby pictures to yourself.”

I was a bit crestfallen at the time.

Cut to December 2012. My father telephones me in France where I live with my daughter. “Just in case you don’t know what to bring me for Christmas,” he says with studied casualness, “you could give me a calendar of Eurydice pictures.” Pause. “You know, like you did last year. I love those pictures of the baby girl more than anything in the world.”

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It is testimony to the tenderness and greatness of my dad’s heart, to his capacity for transformation, his arresting ability to transcend his own boundaries, to grow and discover—that he fell in love with Eurydice the moment he laid eyes on her—and stayed in love no matter what the cost.

It was an improbable alliance. My dad, the cerebral scholar and intimidating intellectual, and the little girl with an intellectual disability. My dad, the tall, slender triathlete, and the chubby 1-year-old with down syndrome who immediately got leukemia and dragged her loved ones into a horror story of hospital isolation rooms, chemotherapy, and blood transfusions. The 2-year-old who couldn’t stand or crawl (much less walk). The 3-year-old who was not yet even ready to start potty training. The sphinx-like 4-year-old who still can’t say “How are you?” in any language, though she regularly hears half a dozen.

My ordinarily proud father didn’t care a whit about those “deficiencies.” What he saw was my girl’s soul—which is full of love and joy, high-spirited mischief, laughter, tenderness, and “Zaertlichkeit”, as he said in German—and which quickly became the center of his life.

Wolfgang Nehring and his granddaughter Eurydice.
Wolfgang Nehring and his granddaughter, Eurydice

Courtesy of Cristina Nehring

My dad would take Eurydice everywhere when we were visiting in Los Angeles. He’d take her to his office, to the park, to the opera, to the market, to the hardware store, to the homes of his doctoral students. He basked in the attention she garnered from passers-by in the supermarket. “It takes us 20 minutes to go 20 meters,” he remarked in his journal. “All the women in West Los Angeles are crazy about Eurydice. It’s great fun being out with her, but the best part is when I am finally alone with her again.”

My dad cut Eurydice’s fingernails and blew-dry her hair. He read her story books, made her fresh carrot and beet juice, circle-danced around the living room with her, and talked about her so incessantly that I—as her mother—was embarrassed. I recall with mortification this last summer in Sardinia: Every day he would regale the childless young couples and adolescent jet-setters on the sunbeds at our side with elaborate accounts of Eurydice’s toileting antics. It simply did not occur to him that anyone could be less than riveted by every detail about his grandchild. To him, Eurydice was a superstar.

Now, Eurydice is a superstar, and it’s no secret that I can’t stop writing essays and books about her myself.

But sometimes—just sometimes—it takes a great soul to know a great soul.

A friend of mine who has a son with a disability puts it better than I ever could: “My son is a litmus test. The moment I introduce him, the angels flock and the assholes flee.”

By that standard, my dad’s been an angel for some time. Today he’s an angel for real.

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