Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What matters?

August 2014 - my dad, Charles, was diagnosed with a stage four, glioblastoma multiforme. Because Mom had passed away almost two years earlier and my brother resides in another state, Dad came to live with us. It made sense. Dad has had University of Michigan season football tickets for over twenty years, and cancer was not going to keep him from watching his beloved Wolverines. Although an aggressive treatment of radiation and chemotherapy left him weak, he went to every 2014 home game except for the night game against Penn State (its start time was after what had become his bedtime). The only other concern Dad had besides Michigan Football was that he not be a burden. When I asked him what his goals were during his time with us, he said, "I want you and Kathy to be successful." That was easier said than done. 

Having a stage four cancer patient in your home is difficult. When it's your strongly independent father, even more so. Kathy and I knew we were in over our heads, so we sought out and got support. Still, we were not being as successful as we had planned before Dad's diagnosis. In particular, my teaching was not getting the attention I typically give it. Feedback drafts were being given back later and later. And a teaching experiment I wanted to conduct was placed on hold. My Grand Valley colleagues and administration were extremely supportive and understanding, but I felt like I was not attending to Dad's wish.

December 2014 - my first grandchild, Vance Charles, was born. He and his parents live about an hour away, which means we get to see him quite often. Because my dad was having a hard time getting around, the new family usually came to our house to visit. Dad always lit up when he saw his great-grandson. One day, Dad and I even got to babysit. We had a great time, but when I returned to my papers and planning, I asked myself, "Am I being successful?"

After spending an amazing morning with my father and my grandchild, I hated that question and all it represented. In retrospect, I do not blame my dad for planting the idea of "success" into my thoughts. He was a teacher, too, and he was simply passing along the message that teachers get in our culture: "Your teaching matters more than anything else in your life." Truth be told, he didn't plant it. I had heard it before, but the present circumstances seemed to make it all the more powerful.

A few years back, I attended a panel discussion where a group of superintendents talked about (then) pending tenure reforms in Michigan. The audience was mostly preservice secondary teachers and one superintendent was particularly vocal about doing away with tenure. His point went something like this: "New, young teachers work hard. After awhile, though, around the time you get tenure, you often get married and have kids and then you might start slacking on your teaching. Without tenure, you'll have to keep working hard - no slacking off." I was incensed at this message that teaching was more important than family, but here I was giving it to myself. So, with the help of my friends and colleagues, I gave myself a break and made my family a priority.

Dad passed away earlier this week. Until the end, he and Vance had an amazing bond. Life is such an incredible journey, and we have so much to learn from our traveling companions. Dad taught me so much about being a parent, a partner, and a teacher. And I'm sure Vance will continue teaching me in the years to come. Together they have shown me what matters.

When it comes to my relationship with Dad, I firmly believe we experienced success.


  1. #GoBlue great grand-daddy!!

    You are a rich man, David Coffey. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Our thoughts are with you as you celebrate your Dad's life.

  3. I knew your father through school and at church. I read this to my mother, Gena Shibley, who is temporarily at a rehab center as a result of a broken femur. She was a teacher and an administrator for over 45 years. She asked me to tell you, " you and Kathy ARE successful, and your parents are proud of you, (present tense deliberate )."
    I feel the same way. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

    Sarah Shibley Hubbs

  4. On your worst day, you are an outstanding teacher. I am in the rare position to actually know :-)

    Thanks for this reflection. It is timely for me.
    Thinking of you in this difficult time.

  5. SUPER-SUPER-SUPER-LIKE. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  6. This was very touching. I'm going to go call a relative right now instead of putting it off because it's "just procrastinating." Thank you.

  7. Hello! This post was recommended for MTBoS 2015: a collection of people's favorite blog posts of the year. We would like to publish an edited volume of the posts and use the money raised toward a scholarship for TMC. Please let us know by responding via email to whether or not you grant us permission to include your post. Thank you, Tina and Lani.