June 15, 2012

Mark K. Shriver, senior vice president for U.S. programs at Save the Children, is the author of “A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver.”

Many of us who have lost our fathers keep relics to remind us of them. I carry an old briefcase in which I keep a copy of a letter from my dad. He wrote me almost every day when I was in high school and in college — and until Alzheimer’s robbed him of the ability to write. Some notes were mundane — about a baseball game or someone he bumped into on the street; some were attached to a book he wanted me to read. Sometimes he wrote about the previous night’s dinner conversation or about politics, and when the topic was behavior, he made clear what was and what was not acceptable.

The briefcase is an old-school artifact that I mainly use because Dad always went to work with two of them. The note inside it was penned the night before my high school graduation.

It didn’t encourage me to work hard in college or tell me that all of my dreams would come true in America, the land of opportunity. No, it was a simple love note:

“Happy Graduation Day, Mark, and Congratulations!

“Always remember, numero uno, that you are a unique, infinitely valuable person — your Mother & I love you — so do your brothers & sisters & friends — But all our love & interest put together cannot compare with the passionate interest & love God himself showers on you. You are His! He wants you! And He will make you the perfect Man you want to be.

“Love, Daddy.”

Now that he’s gone, I regularly read Dad’s letters. The texture and curves of his penmanship are almost physical reminders of him. I get as much consolation from touching them as I do from their content.

These relics and two stories remind me that this day is about honoring how my dad taught me to be a father as much as it is about being celebrated by my own little captive audience.

The older story involves my brother, Bobby, and his highly publicized arrest for marijuana in 1970. Dad was contemplating a run for governor of Maryland, my uncle Teddy was rumored to be pondering a presidential run in 1972 and here was a Kennedy family fiasco on the front pages. I think most fathers, myself included, would have raised holy hell. It would have been the “manly” thing to do — get angry, shout, exact a heavy punishment.

But that is not how Dad acted. As Bobby recalled in his eulogy at Dad’s funeral, “Dad sat me down on the edge of his bed, pulled up a chair, looked me right in the eye, and said, ‘Listen, you’re a good kid. Don’t listen to anybody else. I’m your father. I’m going to take care of you. Do you understand me?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ I said, and that was it — no moralizing, no criticizing. I went back to my room and knew I was safe and so it was.”

Dad didn’t even specifically forgive Bobby — the unconditional love spoke for itself.

That story has inspired me countless times when I have felt the urge to reprimand one of my children. Alas, I fail more often than I’d like to admit.

A few years ago, on a gorgeous spring afternoon, I stood with a bunch of other fathers watching our daughters play lacrosse. Manliness abounded — several of us were shouting instructions and encouraging the referees to make the right call. At one point I thought my daughter, Molly, was slowing down, growing sluggish. I shouted at her. Really shouted.

Suddenly my father called to me from behind. “Hey there,” he said. I looked at him. He wasn’t smiling, and I became alarmed that something bad was happening. Dad had Alzheimer’s, and his behavior was unpredictable. At that point in the progression of the disease, he usually didn’t know who I was; nevertheless, he enjoyed watching my kids’ games.

“You’re yelling a lot,” he said. Relieved that there wasn’t an emergency, I told Dad that the game was close and that Molly needed to move more or her team might lose. I turned around and yelled again at my daughter.

A minute or so later, Dad said, “Hey there. Did I yell like that at you, too?”

I was stunned. He was fathering me still, despite Alzheimer’s.

Not long ago someone interviewed me about the book I recently wrote about my dad. The reporter was an intern, still in college and nervous to boot. At the end of the interview, I told her about my dad coming back from the depths of Alzheimer’s to caution me about my behavior at Molly’s lacrosse game. She put her head down and looked at the table.

“I know all about that,” she said.

That night I wrote Molly a letter. She was graduating from eighth grade the next day and, as student body president, would speak at the ceremony. My penmanship is not as good as my dad’s, and I’m sure my words were not as thoughtful, but I tried. As I wrote, I relished the letter’s permanence compared with e-mail. Much of what we’ve written electronically, not just to colleagues but to friends and family members, will be lost. I don’t know if Molly will carry that note around in her computer bag years from now, but I’d like to think so.