Lessons From My Dad
Today is my dad's birthday. He would've turned 64 years old. It's also been nearly a month since I last posted, which means it's been nearly a month since my dad passed away. The 20th, the day that mark's Noam's 11th month on earth, will also mark one month since I got the call that his heart stopped and nothing they could do could bring it back.
This is a post that I've thought about writing for a while, but really - physically - couldn't sit down to write. Writing this means I must confront my new reality. Writing this means it's really true and that everything that's happened in the past month wasn't just some sort of dream or meaningless set of motions. In the days after his death, there were so many things to take care of and figure out. And, as I think back, I realize I wasn't truly present for those moments. I was disassociating myself from the process to cope with it. So now, as I write this, there's nowhere for me to go. I'm forcing myself to be present and deal with it. Yes, it'll take time. This is just the first step.
My dad had been sick for quite a while. He'd been in the hospital for a month before he'd passed, but we had no idea that he was so close to the end. In fact, about 12 hours before it happened, I was speaking with his nurse about the nursing home he'd be going to as soon he was cleared to leave the hospital. Everything was going as well - actually better - than could be expected given his condition. He was going to be released and was going somewhere that would help him live a comfortable, happy, fulfilled life. That's what we thought, because we had no reason to think otherwise. It's debatable whether or not my dad thought or knew the same. In my gut - deep in my heart and soul - I believe he knew his time was almost over and he was preparing for the end. He just didn't share that with us. This is something I struggle with believing but ultimately, what will help me put the puzzle pieces together to understand what happened.
The morning I received the call was like every other morning in a lot of ways. And was nothing like every other morning in one huge, catastrophic way. I'm still processing every word that was said. It replays over and over again in my mind and haunts me every moment I am not distracted by something else and even some of the moments when I am. Once in a while it hits me like a ton of bricks. It knocks me down and steals my breath and I think if I didn't need to keep going, I might not be able to.
While I wait for the day when I'll feel as though I've mourned the loss of my dad fully, I'm using this time now to focus on the heartwarming memories, the positive thoughts and the simple lessons that my dad taught me, whether he intended to teach them or not.
1. Go to the ones you love. Now. And often. I am filled with so many emotions when I think about my relationship with my dad. I feel guilty and angry and profoundly sad. I wish our relationship was different but the fact is that it was deeply flawed. If I had known the end was coming or the end was soon, I would've visited him more. I would've called him more. I hate that I didn't work on our relationship more, even though I'm not sure it would've mattered. My dad pushed people away, and that was how he'd always been. The most important lesson my dad taught me was not a lesson he never intended to teach me. It's this: bring those you love and those who love you closer. Now. And often.
2. Ask questions. I'll be the first to admit that my dad and I didn't have the best relationship. He could be incredibly stubborn (so could I, and I think I know who I got that from) and intensely private, which was very frustrating to me. But as I think back, I wonder if there was more I could've done. Is that a healthy way to look at things? Maybe not, and nothing can change what's in the past. But it's true, think I could've asked more questions, shared more about my life, been more open and inviting. I know so little about my dad's life, about his past. And yes, part of that was because he did not choose to share much. But I believe a big part of that is because I waited for him to decide to share instead of pressing. Sometimes I think I learned more about him posthumously than I did while he was alive. Going through his bank statements and medical records and notebooks full of writings, I learned who he was, what he believed and how he lived on an intimate level. This was the puzzle piece I had been missing my whole life.
3. Leave nothing unsaid. As I replay the weeks and months leading up to his death, I think about the calls I meant to make but didn't. I think about the words I could've said but chose not to. I am not to blame for my dad's death - I know this and believe it to be true. And I know that while I wish I could've done more sometimes, I also wish he would've. But all of that aside, there were plenty of opportunities to say more - both for him and for me. We should have said more. We should have left less unsaid. In my experience, I've learned there is much more regret in leaving words unsaid than in speaking words you mean. And, as a corollary, never pass up an opportunity to tell someone you love them. The last phone call I ever had with my dad - the last time I ever spoke with him - was over a week before he passed. He had gotten angry with me for something I said to him. I know he didn't mean to and I know he loved me, but it hurt my feelings so much so that I decided not to go visit him that day as I had originally planned. The guilt from that decision eats away at me. But, despite our conversation not going as planned, I ended it with 'I love you," as I had ended every conversation with him. And I find a tiny bit of comfort in knowing that was the case and believing that he knew that fully.
4. Practice random kindness and senseless acts of love. This is something he did intend to teach me. He wrote it on the inside cover of the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird he gave me many years ago. I thought it was such a sweet message, but in his death, I am now seeing a sort of tragedy in it. For all of my dad's faults and for all of his troubles, he still believed deeply in the good and the love in the world. I would implore everyone to heed this message. Especially in the wake of recent tragedies, we could all stand to practice a little more kindness and acts of love. I think sometimes we think there's an upper limit to things (because in many things it's true that there is). But in kindness and love? The limit does not exist.
5. Know yourself. I mean really get to know yourself. Know yourself better than anyone else knows you and better than you know anyone else. You're the only person who has to and gets to live with you for your entire life, after all. And, at the end of all of it, you're the only one who's been inside your head and understands the reasons you do what you do, say what you say and are the way you are. Don't squander that opportunity and don't apologize for taking the time to learn who you are. Write notes down, read things that resonate with you, talk to someone who can help you figure yourself out. This may be the most important thing I've learned through all of this.
6. Make peace and then let go. Let go of the problem. Let go of the person. Let go of the past. Whatever it is, make your peace with it and then let it go. Life is too short and too fragile to be weighed down by anything that causes you grief or sadness. I think there's a threshold for pain that one human can experience, and I also think that pain compounds. So if it's not addressed and worked through, it gets exponentially more difficult to bear over time. Relentless suffering is one the greatest human tragedies, but it can also one of humanity's greatest teachers. Rumi says, 'The wound is the place where the light enters you,' and, while immensely difficult to see sometimes, I believe that can be true. When faced with difficulties and pain and unbearable challenges, turn toward the light.
7. It is okay to be selfish. And you don't need to call it being selfish. The reason I didn't end up going to visit my dad the day we had our last phone conversation was because I was being selfish. I was protecting myself - my heart and my world - from something that caused me pain. Do I regret not visiting him? Yes, absolutely. But I do not regret that, in that moment, I asked myself what I could do to best take care of Cristina and then I did that. My dad and I had a very complicated relationship that caused me a lot of pain and anger and resentment and deep sadness. And in the moments I felt those feelings, what was most important was that I took care of myself.
8. Don't be afraid to live. Life is fleeting. We look at our lives as many decades or, if we're really lucky, a century, and consider it a long time (heck, we sometimes consider a week a really long time). But in reality, our lives are a mere speck on the universe's timeline. They are short. Our lives are way too short to spend even a moment not really living. I think sometimes things get in the way of our living the life we want. Relationships end, people we love leave us or pass away, jobs or homes or circumstances change, life presents really trying, difficult moments that challenge all we thought we knew about ourselves and the world around us. It can be easy to use these moments and experiences as excuses to be a victim of this cold, dangerous, scary world. Because yes, the world can be cold and dangerous and scary sometimes. But on the whole, it is warm and safe and the best place to be if you want to be alive. This world, despite it's troubles, is such a beautiful place to be living and that's something I'm beginning to see a little more clearly.