For six years my father is battled cancer.
In the very near future, that battle will be over.
Over the last few months, I’ve come to understand why cancer survivors don’t say that someone has lost their battle with cancer. I’ve watched my dad be more courageous in what we have long known was a fight with an endgame we did not want to face. He has battled the whole time with dignity and grace and strength and humor in ways that have made me respect him and learn from him and love him all the more. And even now, as we approach the hardest days, he has remained uniquely him, powerfully him, in ways that have left those of us who love him most in awe of his strength.
When it is all said and done, my dad will not have lost his battle with cancer, he will have simply have run out of time to fight it.
Anyone who has ever heard me give a speech or even just talked to me for any length of time, knows how much my father means to me. He is, simply put, my hero. Sid Lehmann spent his adult life in service of working people. Professionally, he was a union lawyer; his clients were teachers, police officers, custodians and more, and he spent his working life making their lives better. My dad is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and he chose a life of service. And more than that, he had a fundamental and powerful respect for the people he served.
My father’s intellect was really only matched by his humility. It didn’t matter how smart he was, he respected the gifts and the intellect and the lives of the working people he served – and really of all the people he met. One of the many lessons I learned from him was that you should never use your own intellect to make others feel less smart than you, but as smart or smarter than you, and if you respected the ideas and perspectives of others, you could and would learn from anyone and everyone. My dad believes that whatever gifts one was given, they had to be spent lifting others up, not putting them down.
My father learned from his mother the idea that you should never intentionally try to hurt another person. He had a fundamental and abiding respect for all people. While I think the delineation I made years later about how there was a difference between “nice” and “kind” — and what one should shoot for was “kind,” came from both of my parents, the idea that kindness could be created writ large in the work you did in the world came from him. You felt it from him, and his work as a union lawyer came from a few deeply held beliefs. One was the idea that the purpose of life was that you should try to leave the world a little bit better off because you happened to live in it, and the other was that every person had a right to dignity and a fair shake at life.
My father’s kindness has been tempered by true steel in his spine. He didn’t back away from a fight, and in my house, if you wanted to argue, you were taught to bring your A-game. I remember when I was in college at U. Penn – and probably a little more (a lot more) full of myself than I should have been. I was questioning a lot of my beliefs about unions and working people and what people “deserved.” At the time, the New York Daily News was on strike, and it was looking like the paper was going to go under. My dad and I got into an argument about it. I’d call it a discussion, but in my family, we argue. I was arguing that it made no sense for the unions not to give in and I said something about the paper not really “belonging” to them anyway. My dad replied by saying, “You know, maybe the union would be better off if they were run by a bunch of [expletive] Wharton MBAs, but that doesn’t mean that working people don’t have a right to a say in their own lives, and you should remember that of land, labor and capital, only one of the three is sentient.”
That was over twenty years ago, and I’ve used that argument ever since. No one has ever made a better one. And for the record, no one – I mean no one – can curse better than my father.
I have so many friends who cannot talk to their parents about politics or the way of the world because what they believe is so different from what their parents believe, and I have never been able to fully grasp what that must be like. I remember back in the mid-90s when I was working in DC, something happened politically – probably the Clinton health care fight, actually – and I answered the phone where I worked, and there was my dad on the other end of the line, “Jesus, Christopher – it’s time to storm the [expletive] barricades – can you believe this?” Suffice to say, I come by my passion honestly. And his never abated, as the many conversations we had about the election this fall showed.
But he has been so much more than political. He also loved the life of the mind, and there was nothing more fun than great passionate debate. Another college memory was when I was home from school shortly after having gone to a pro-choice rally in Washington, DC. My Dad – who was and is pro-choice – was arguing with me about the politics of the rally, and I finally got so angry that I said, “You don’t even believe your argument right now!” And he replied, “Yeah, but I just really love to debate with you.” Funny thing was I knew even then what an incredible compliment that was. That love of the give and take of a debate — that willingness to learn from others while you were debating, even if it meant you didn’t “win,” I learned that from him. It was from my dad I learned how you can argue to learn, not just argue to win.
The list goes on and on… my dad was my baseball and soccer coach when I was a kid. He embraced Ultimate Frisbee when I fell in love with the sport, even learning to throw a forehand, just so we could have a catch. He has been my moral compass. And as my life and my career has become what it has become, he was my best advisor and strategist. In one of the great joys of my life, over the past decade, I was able to be a strategist and sounding board for him as well. And he has been the most amazing grandfather to Jakob and Theo and my niece Amelia. He is one of the truly greatest men I have ever known – and likely ever will.
There’s a black and white photo of my father on my wall that I took when I was taking a photography class in graduate school many years ago. Dad was fifty years old, and we were down the shore on vacation. He’s sitting, shirt off, on the rocks on the beach, ocean behind him, looking slightly up and out, away from the camera. I took the shot from slightly lower than he was, because I wanted that kind of iconic frame to the photo. I look at it now, and I realize that it captures both who my dad is, but also who he is to me. The values I hold most dear about the way the world should be – and the obligation we have to try to create that world – have their roots in what he has taught me.
This post isn’t really meant to be his eulogy, although I’m sure this will form the start of it. I have to admit that if my dad could read this, he would probably be a little embarrassed by it. He has a laugh that everyone who knows him knows well when he thinks something is a little ridiculous or embarrassing or just when he is a little bit in disbelief about the world. I have no doubt this post would have provoked that laugh a few times, but he would have read it anyway. It’s on his son’s blog, after all, and what I learned over the past few years is that he had my blog bookmarked, and I’m pretty sure he read just about everything I wrote here.
My family is in the thick of the hardest time now. My father’s fight is ending soon, and my family will have to begin the process of figuring out our lives without his physical presence in our lives day-to-day. My dad is sixty-seven years old, and he deserved more time than he will have gotten. He deserved to see his grandkids grow up, and my mom and my dad really should have had the chance to grow much, much older together. But in the time that my dad has had, he made a profound difference in the world, and an incredible difference in the lives of the people he knew. The world is – without question – a better place because Sid Lehmann has lived in it.
Thank you, Dad, for being the most incredible father I could have ever wanted. Thank you for making me want to make the world a better place and for, along with Mom, showing me a path to do so. Thank you for making sure that I have known I was loved every day of my life.
I love you, Dad, and I’ll miss you more than I can say.