Answering Dad’s questions

With Father’s Day this Sunday, it’s time to pay attention to Dad.

Robert Steinberg, 89, father of Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg.

My father, Robert Steinberg, 89, shortly before moving from Boulder, Colorado to the Chicago suburbs. He often asks me questions.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“This is a beautiful house,” my father says, sitting in our living room, looking around. “Everything is so perfect.”

Our house is 115 years old and not at all perfect. More like a tottering jumble. The aluminum siding is dinged and piebald. Paint peels off the radiator in front of him. There are gaps in the scarred floorboards at his feet. The window panes are loose.  One stairway banister snapped in half and is inexpertly repaired.

“Thank you, Dad,” I say. “We like it.”

I don’t argue with my father, don’t correct him. He can observe the same thing or ask the same question over and over, and I reply in a steady, patient voice.

“Thanks, Dad. It’s home.”

I first noticed him doing it 10 years ago, when we were visiting my parents in Colorado. Dad got stuck on a book coming out.

“This book, how long is it?” he’d say.

“Two hundred and 56 pages,” I’d answer.

Ten minutes later:

“And this book you’ve written. How long is it?”

“Two hundred and 56 pages, Dad,” I’d answer.

In February, we moved him and Mom here. He started in on a new question.

“When do you think you’ll retire?”

“Never, Dad. They froze our pension in 2009.”

“Are you retired?”

“No, Dad, not in the usual sense of the word.”

One benefit of this repetition is that I can play with my responses.

“Do you think you’ll retire soon?”

“... maybe in a couple years.”

“... the moment I send out the wrong tweet.”

“... I’m waiting until there are no other columnists left in Chicago, so I can be the last one.”

Why this sudden interest in my career? He never cared before. That isn’t true. When I was going to college, he tried to steer me into science. I had no interest, but, to him, science was the only valid profession. I took the effort as a confirmation that he had no idea who I was. Now, at the end, he’s still encouraging me to be just like him. He retired in 1988, drawing a federal pension longer than he worked. Retirement is what successful men do.

“When do you think you’ll retire?”

“... as soon as I possibly can.”

“... never, Dad. I love my job too much.”

Sometimes, answering the same question again, I will gaze fixedly at my mother. See? This is how it’s done. Because she’ll scowl, correct him. “You’ve asked that already, Bob.” Part of her struggle to push him back down the long corridor that only goes one way.

Decline is not without its comforts. My mother watches baseball on TV — she’s a Rockies fan — and, when the camera pans the crowd, my father will routinely call out, excitedly, “Look! That’s Neil. I think I see Neil there.”

Needless to say, I am not there. But whatever faltering circuit causes him to think I am, well, I’m grateful for that.

My father was a nuclear physicist. They are a strange crew, physicists. When I am trying to explain him, I usually tell this story. He worked for 30 years at NASA Lewis Research in Cleveland. The lab had an airplane, and they would fly scientists to Cape Kennedy to see the space shuttle launch. He could have gone, but didn’t.

“Dad, why didn’t you ever go see a launch?” I once asked.

“It wasn’t my program,” he replied, simply. He was the most self-oriented man I ever met. The rest of the world, just not interesting. Not his program.

Now, at 89, he is a man entirely without volition. There is nothing he wants to do. Nowhere he wants to go.

Nevertheless, for Father’s Day, I will pick him up and take him to dinner at my sister-in-law’s, though he wouldn’t know or care if I didn’t. He exists in an eternal now. I’m not quite envious of him — I still appreciate wanting things; getting them is another matter — but I’m not terrified of his fate, either. The barbed goad of ambition flailed me all my life. How nice to finally turn off the flame, let the scorched pot cool. To furl your sails in some snug harbor, admiring whatever is in front of you.

“This is a beautiful home,” he’ll say.

“Thanks, Dad. I’m trying to fix it up.”

Neil Steinberg on “Reset” about “Answering Dad’s questions”


Neil Steinberg was interviewed about this column on WBEZ’s “Reset.” To listen, click here.

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