My Dad’s Last Life Lesson
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on March 5th, 2013

My dad sometimes claimed to have taught me to swim. His instruction consisted of teaching me Dead Man’s Float and showing me how to move my arms and legs. Shortly after I found the courage to thrash my way to a raft anchored 15 yards from shore in Hempstead Harbor on Long Island. Then I called for a lifeguard to bring me back.

What Dad lacked in inclination for conversation–he was more comfortable giving advice–he more than made up in a love of teaching. I and my five younger siblings were marked by the certainty that the way he showed us to do so many things was the right way and that details mattered. My regular chores included sweeping the cellar stairs, lining the garbage can with 3 sheets from the ‘broadsheet’ Long Island Press (Newsday’s tabloid pages were the wrong size) and washing the dishes. In each he was firm, patient and unequivocal in explaining the logic of his way, until it was unthinkable to do otherwise.

We’ve had an automatic dishwasher for decades, but I’ve seldom used it. Washing the dishes by hand, following logic and efficiency principles, is  hardwired into my psyche. I wash the previous day’s dishes first thing in the morning because it’s a way to start the day with ‘Chop Wood, Carry Water.’

Fill the sink with soapy water–hot enough that I have to dart my hands in and out to avoid scalding. Put utensils at the bottom. Gently layer glassware atop them. Wash the glasses and move them to the drainer before adding anything that might cause smearing. Load in dinner plates, with bowls and mugs on top. Work your way to the bottom.

Mugs and cups clean easily since liquid contents don’t stick. Bowls may need just a bit more soaking. By the time I get to dinner plates, what adhered has loosened. And finally to the well-soaked utensils, which now wipe clean more easily.

Following his principles, I’ve striven to refine his method–arranging washed items to drain in such a way that I won’t need to sponge excess water from the counter or use a dish towel to dry them. Save steps. Save time. Save energy.

I tried to teach my daughters, but alas was so reluctant to give up doing it myself,  I fear they lacked the necessary hours of practice opportunity I’d had

Though it took me decades to realize, I now see that the inclination to particularity, the sense that details others may overlook are consequential, and the logic inherent in the TI Method are a legacy of my dad’s example–now reflected in the swimming habits of thousands.

My dad’s most important lesson was one I never expected. Open heart surgery for a defective valve at 74 left him with only 30% of cardiac output. For 13 years, he inexorably lost strength, stamina and mobility. In the past three years, debility and fragility took away, one after another, a series of priceless pleasures–dancing with my mom, playing golf, singing barbershop, playing poker  with buddies–a ritual that continued for over 50 years.

Finally a broken hip six months ago left him bedridden and confined to a series of health care facilities most of the time since. Though known for being prickly at times, he bore with memorable grace a series of cascading crises and nearly constant discomfort.

Last Saturday, while in the UK to give a talk at a triathlon conference, I got a message from my sister that he’d slipped into a coma. I hurried home and was at his bedside Sunday as his breathing grew weaker and more intermittent. After months of unceasing discomfort and struggle, the serenity of his final moments will remain with me forever.

The peace with which he shed the bonds of his corporeal body and the ease that came over his features showed how little we have to fear of dying. And if we don’t fear death, what can faze us? My dad’s final lesson was to reveal the key to a fearless life.

John Laughlin Dec 2. 1925 – Mar 3, 20131.0 title slide

7 Responses to “My Dad’s Last Life Lesson”

  1. Mary Ann says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. That was a wonderful tribute.

  2. What a beautiful post, a wonderful tribute to a beloved father. My condolences to you and your family, Terry.

    To Mr. John Laughlin: Thank you so much for imparting important lessons to your son. Thanks to Terry and Total Immersion Swimming my husband and I are now on our way to a healthier, happier lifestyle. God bless you, and may you rest in peace.

  3. Michael Levy says:

    A beautiful post. Your dad was on heck of a guy.

    I too watched my parents deteriorate with age. My mom spent her final years with senile dementia. When she no longer recognized anyone, she stopped eating, a signal too all of us that she was finished with the struggle.

    My dad lived seven years longer, battling arthritis, hearing loss, and macular degeneration. He died in his sleep at the age of 96, swimming until only a few weeks before he died. He couldn’t get his arms out of the water any longer because of the arthritis, but he kept at it. He joked that while they once timed him on a watch, now they did it with a calendar. He too taught me about the right way to do things. His last years taught me about dedication and determination.

  4. Lindley Thomasset says:

    My condolences to you and your family. Your father was a remarkable person who gave you important lessons in life. What a good lesson he gave you. May God hold him in the hollow of His Hand.

  5. Claudia says:

    So sorry for your loss.

  6. Chris says:

    Thankyou. As I watch my parents slip into the autumn of their life, this post gives me comfort.

  7. Roger Brindley says:

    Terry. I’ve just commented on your ageless swimming blog as being your best one but this one beats it. What a heartfelt and wonderful tribute to your late father. I’m so sorry. I’ve just had a lesson with Keith Lewis and he mentioned to me that he was going to ask me to come down to meet you during your recent stay in the UK but before he could do that you had had to go back home because of receiving news about your father. I am sorry not have met you but really grateful that your were able to be at your father’s bedside before he died.

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