A Father's Day Tribute: Lt. James Masterson

Every little girl looks up to her father. He is the man in her life by which she judges all other men, and the example she follows on how to live life and deal with challenges. My dad has certainly been that for me – and I have led my life by his positive example.

My dad’s optimism is what makes him such a great father. The gifts he gives to my sister, brother, and I daily – staying upbeat and positive, and showing us how to prevail over challenges – is what makes our family strong.

Born the eldest of seven children, my dad’s parents expected a lot of him. His father was a police officer, and they could not afford to send my dad to college. Therefore, he worked hard in school, excelled in football and basketball, and received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy after high school. Today my dad still talks about the joy he saw in his father’s eyes when he told him the news. He said he and his father were best friends and that it was his proudest day. My dad graduated from the Naval Academy in 1974, and then spent three years as the main propulsion assistant and the legal officer on the USS Harold J. Ellison DD864.

Before I was born, my dad’s father came down with Alzheimer’s disease. He suffered for several years – years in which my dad would take us to see him in the nursing home, bringing along photos, pictures, and cards we had made. I was thirteen when he passed away, and at the time, I did not know how much it had affected my father. He talks about his dad still, referring to him as his “best friend”, and remembering fondly their father-son talks. I can see it in his eyes that he still misses him.

Twenty-six years ago, a doctor diagnosed my dad with Multiple Sclerosis (or MS). MS is an autoimmune disease – that means my dad’s body attacks the protective shield around the nerves in his brain that then interrupts all kinds of messages it tries to send to his body. So, simple things like picking up his foot to walk he has difficulty doing. My dad’s MS is also progressive, so he will never get better (unless they find a cure!). When I was young, I watched him go from using a cane to now using a wheelchair to get around. He never gives up trying though, despite his wheelchair. He is constantly telling me, “I can do it, Kate” when I ask him if he needs help. He is far beyond the limitations his disease places on him – and that is what he tries to tell other MS patients he meets along the way. In fact, my dad volunteers at the MS Foundation in Ft. Lauderdale, FL where he talks to newly diagnosed patients about the disease and answers any questions they may have. He likes that he can be that “real person” for them, a real person with MS that knows what they are going through; he always says they want to be able to say, “ME TOO”.

My mother was my father’s full-time caregiver – she helped him with his medicine and took over the family duties of both parents. She paid the bills, cooked the meals, did the laundry, repaired things that needed fixing, mowed the lawn – she did everything. However, when she passed away suddenly in 2004, my dad lost something more than a helper at home – he lost his love of a lifetime.

When I tell people my dad’s story, most people look down at their feet and say how sorry they are. I usually reply with “It’s okay!” and smile back at them – because that is what my dad would do. While he is always going to be sad about his dad and my mom, and his MS will probably continue to be a constant battle in his life, he is not going to sit around and feel sorry for himself because of it. He would rather go through life smiling and making others happy, rather than being down in the dumps forever.

My dad often repeats a saying that a nun sitting at his bedside once told him during a hospital stay for his MS … she said, “God wouldn’t have given this to you if he didn’t think you could handle it”.

Whenever I am feeling down or upset about something, I think of those words and my father’s positive outlook on life. I think about his life, the mountains he has had to climb, and all the troubles he has had to overcome – and I realize that I am the luckiest girl in the world to have a dad who has set such a wonderful example for me on how to be present in life and live for each day.

When I need advice about life I know I can call my dad; he is always there to talk and I know he will be smiling on the other end of the line. He lets me know things are going to be all right and that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to do.