Ten Lessons Sans Carols: #3 The Family Fonz

Ah, family. It’s the unit that nothing trumps in importance. It’s the unit into which you didn’t choose to be born but to which you always are connected. It’s the unit that’s thicker than water (its blood, anyway), the unit that measures success in terms of what it’s done for you and failure in terms of what you haven’t done for it. It’s the unit source of the genetic weaknesses causing your chronic illnesses (including celiac disease) and the genetic code for why you have/don’t have a widow’s peak or a hitchhiker’s thumb or blue eyes and red hair. It’s also the unit that psychologists use to explain who you are and how difficult it will be to fix you.

I love my family. My family is awesome, especially my Dad, who for decades has suffered the burden of being Henry Winkler’s doppelganger. Back in the seventies, people would chase Dad through the airport, convinced he really was the Fonz and just didn’t want to sign autographs. Three decades later people still come up to him and ask him if he knows he “looks exactly like the Fonz!”

Two Decembers ago, my equally cool sister arranged for Dad to meet Henry Winkler. The actor is the spokesperson for some product that helps people with spinal cord injuries and was giving a promotional talk at the hospital where my sister worked. After the talk, which all the patients and staff loved, Mr. Winkler graciously signed autographs. He was seated at a table, not looking up to see every person who thrust a book or poster in front of him to sign.

According to my dad and my sister, when my dad’s turn came, he held out the poster everyone had received and said to the actor, “You know, I’ve been mistaken for you since Happy Days first aired.”Fonz

Henry Winkler glanced up and then did a double take.

“Whoa. You do look like me!” he said.

“Actually, you look like me,” my dad corrected. “I’m older than you are.”

“I hope I’ve done you proud.”

“No complaints,” my dad said, deadpan.

Then Mr, Winkler stood up, came around the table and posed for a photo with the guy he looks like. That’s how cool my dad is. And how cool Henry Winkler is. My dad was so impressed and still talks about how inspiring it was to hear Mr. Winkler talk about the lessons he’s learned and the values he’s honored over the years of his very successful career: believing in yourself while always improving yourself, giving back to those who have given you so much, and using your personal power for the greater good.

Thus far, in my family, gluten has waged war only with my mother’s and my gut; however, autoimmune diseases in general hang from every branch of the family tree. Odds are if you’re in our family, some part of you will turn traitor. Glance at the family tree and you’ll also see eye problems. We have more than our fair share of detached retinas (all successfully reattached), extreme nearsightedness to the point of legal blindness without corrective eyewear, glaucoma, and cataracts. Vision is so bad in our family, we don’t see trouble coming.

“Who the hell is that in the kitchen?”

“You daughter.”


“Put your glasses on.”

“Oh. Hi, hon!”

A little after seven on Christmas Eve morning I drove my dad to an “eye group” to talk about cataract surgery. His regular optometrist suggested he talk with someone about surgery. We went to the same “eye group” where my teenage niece had eye surgery two years ago. They did a fantastic job and her recovery was speedy so Dad said he’d consider them for his surgery.

The doctor we saw was great. I watched my dad’s body language change from hostile to suspicious to let me tell you about my trains. He said as much, too. That was the clincher for dad: when he told the doctor he wanted to be sure he still could enjoy his hobby/obsession (his words)—model railroading—the doctor knew exactly what kind of vision and dexterity that required, launching into a lovely chat about precision tools and scale, using terminology I didn’t understand but my dad did. In other words, the doctor and Dad were speaking the same language.

It took three hours for them to perform all kinds of tests and take all kinds of measurements to tell them all kinds of things about Dad’s eyes. The readings suggested significant probability of surgical success and confirmed the appropriateness of the lenses they want to implant. In other words, they were dotting their eyes and crossing their tees (it was casual dress day).

We got back home just before lunch, giving me enough time to go back to my house, scarf lunch and then pack up everything needed for the big family Christmas (see Lessons Sans Carols #8). We had a beautiful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Now that the holidays are over, we are counting down to the surgeries scheduled in February. A skirmish broke out about who would take Dad to and from the surgeries and who would stay behind to take care of the dog. It’s outpatient surgery: about three hours from check-in to check-out. That means someone has to stay behind to walk Abbey, my furniece, so dad’s short-term absence doesn’t throw her routine into a tailspin.

We all want to go with Dad, but I don’t think the “eye group” would appreciate one family hogging so many seats in the waiting room the chair-to-patient ratio looks like betting odds for the race track.

We’re those kind of people. When a fierce storm roared through Dad’s neighborhood just after New Year’s Day, it blew the really heavy steel-and-aluminum chimney cap over the neighbor’s house and into the neighbor’s driveway, toppled a bunch of trees (none on Dad’s property but three right over the line), and ripped branches of all sizes out of the decades-old trees. Dad called me to share the “good” news and ask for some help, I called my sister and in less than two hours, team E had everything cleaned up.

We specifically involved our men so Dad would not get up on the roof with his bad eyesight to replace the chimney cap, butRoof Repairs there’s no stopping him. The three men hammered out the kinks and bends in the metal and then returned it to its perch. Thank God the guys are several inches taller than he is because that took him out of physically lifting the cap. As my cousin up in Massachusetts observed, Dad’s our Elf on the Shelf (see him to the left of the chimney?), popping up where you least expect him. Of course, his kids take right after him; we always pop up when one of us needs something or one of us has a special event.

We all helped Dad decorate the house for Christmas and then we all helped take down the decorations (in addition to decorating and undecorating our own houses). My sister includes him in nightly dinner during the week and I help out on weekends and holidays. We constantly think of things to get for him or do for him so he’s taken care of. The hole where Mom used to be in our family still yawns widely but we try to fill in around the edges as much as we collectively and individually can.

Like Mr. Winkler, we think it’s important to give back to the ones who have given us so much and to work for the greater good. That’s especially what we do for the family Fonz.