The things we've handed down

My father's childhood was not like mine.

At age 11, he and his brother went to Hong Kong to board a ship by themselves. Even before they sailed, it was the farthest they'd ever been from their village. My grandfather had sent for them from America – but to them, the place they were going was "Gold Mountain."

They landed in Vancouver, B.C. and hopped a train to Montreal. From there, they were sent to Ellis Island for "processing." Months later, they were released to a man they hardly knew. They hadn't seen my grandfather in nearly six years.

The family business was a Chinese laundry in Rochester, NY. After school, my father stacked and folded bundles of shirts, and worked the steam press in the stifling heat. Sometimes, he'd wipe off the fogged-up windows with a rag, and watch the other kids throw snowballs in the playground across the street.

He learned English quickly, and read everything he could get his hands on. He loved adventure stories about freighters and stowaways, and life on the high seas. When the war came, it was his ticket out of the laundry. He lied about his age, enlisted in the Navy, and never looked back.

He went to college and dental school on the GI Bill, and settled down with my mom in Amherst, Massachusetts. A few years later, he had a house, an office and four mischievous sons.

My dad worked long hours, building his dental practice with no partners and little help. Still, when he came home at the end of the day, he always found energy for his unruly pack of boys. On weekends, he took us fishing, or played catch with us in the backyard. And at night, when he finally had a moment to himself, he tried to figure out how to be the All-American Dad.

I remember him sitting in his big vinyl recliner, poring over the dog-eared paperbacks he checked out from the library. Bob Cousy's Fundamentals of Basketball. Lucas on Bass Fishing. Baseball Skills for Boys.

My father has always believed that the world, and how it works, is knowable. If you study it, and prepare for it, you'll succeed. That's how he approached fatherhood. Maybe he'd never dribbled a basketball in his life – but his sons wanted to learn how to play. He cut out a plywood backboard and bolted it to the garage. He went to the library. He studied the jump shot and the pick-and-roll.

I remember him at the kitchen table, before we'd leave on vacations, carefully marking our route on a tattered roadmap. It was only a three-hour trip, and mostly on the interstate, but he wasn't taking any chances. Our Chevy station wagon, with its fake wood paneling and the turning radius of the Titanic, was our ship on the high seas. He was our captain. It was his job to take us where we needed to go.

When we're young, we think we're nothing like our parents. We stare at them in disbelief, and wonder what genetic aberration or baby-swapping mishap might have placed us with such an unlikely pair. We swear that our approach to parenting will be completely different from theirs. But once we have children of our own, we realize that our parenting operating system is just a variation on the same basic platform. A few new features. A little less stable. Windows Parenthood 2.0.

My childhood was nothing like my dad's, but the tools I use as a father are the ones he handed down. When I scour the Internet for softball strategies and Ultimate Frisbee tips, I see his stack of library books in my mind. When I log on to MapQuest before we go on a trip, I hear the scratch of his pencil tracing the interstate. And when I get home from the office and one of my kids wants to play catch, I slip off my work shoes, put on some sneakers, and grab my baseball mitt.

Not long ago, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. When I found out, I felt the way people do after an earthquake. The ground you've stood on your entire life shifts and tilts. Suddenly, you notice that the earth is the only thing holding up your feet. You can't take it for granted anymore.

My dad went through chemotherapy and radiation, and (knock on wood) he's doing well. So this year, more than most, I'm looking forward to Father's Day. I get to celebrate it with him, knowing that a few months ago, that wasn't a sure thing. I get to write this column, knowing that he'll probably read it. And best of all, I get another chance to thank him. For the things he did. For the things he handed down.

I love you, Dad. Happy Father's Day.

Jeff Lee crashes and re-boots in Seattle, Washington.