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Giving Thanks: Gifts from My Dad

November 6, 2012

Giving Thanks: Gifts from My Dad

Friday, November 2, 2012

Today I bought a sandwich and some chips and took them to the Writer at the Lake (see my September 9, 2012 post) as suggested by one of my readers and friends. This time I approached him more confidently, walking straight up and asking, “Do you want a sandwich?” holding it out for him to take. He sort of grunted but didn’t look up to meet my eyes and made no move to take the paper bag. So I simply set it on top of one of his bags next to him on the bench and said, “Here it is, if you want it.” He made no sound or movement, so I walked away. I turned a couple of times to see if he might look at me but he didn’t appear to do so. I’m not even sure if he ever actually saw who I was. I don’t know if he’ll open the bag to find the food, but I was glad to give it to him anyway.

This is very much something my dad would do.

Last week we learned that my dad’s prostate cancer is particularly aggressive and that he likely has less than nine months to live. When I was younger, I spent a long time blaming my father for my unhappiness and for those parts of myself and my life that I didn’t like. I’ve long since forgiven him and come to realize how many of the things I value, and qualities that have made me successful and happy in life, are gifts he gave me. Rather than waiting to eulogize him when he is gone, I’m writing about him now, while he is alive, to tell him and the world about a man who helped me become the person I am today.

Generosity. Even while my parents, particularly my mom, struggled to make ends meet, my father gave food and cash away to strangers. He also gave me money secretly from time to time (typically a $20 bill), such as when I was home from college, threatening to get angry when I resisted taking it. Given my family’s precarious financial circumstances, my parents didn’t have the means to help me and my brother pay for college. Yet somehow, my family always had enough to get along, and certainly the beneficiaries of my dad’s generosity needed it more than we did.

I think his giving to others helped him feel better about his own difficulties in life. I also believe that his generosity came from the purist place inside him of genuine kindness and concern for others, whether family members or total strangers. He is the one who taught me to think about people that are easy to ignore, and to do something “crazy” and random by deviating from the familiar, habitual tendency to take care of only ourselves and our loved ones. He was the one who would find a stray cat on the verge of death by starvation and nurse it overnight to keep it alive and bring it back to health.  I believe my dad taught me how to look outside of myself and my little life, and occasionally, to show generosity and loving kindness to others, whether a friend or a stranger halfway around the world. Or a homeless guy at the lake where I run or bike most days.

Music. Dad insisted that my brother and I take a full load of academic subjects in high school, especially math and English. He also made sure that we learned to play a musical instrument, something he never had the opportunity to do, though he can carry a good tune. We couldn’t afford the viola I wanted in 4th grade, but learning to play my brother’s hand-me-down trumpet in 5th and 6th grade helped create a musical foundation that has brought me pleasure my whole life in singing and listening to music of all kinds.

Thoughtfulness. Dad was creative in gift giving. In my childhood Christmases, he always made a point to find something simple that wasn’t on our list but that we would use and enjoy, such as our very own bedroom mirrors. He wrote these poignant words on my 19th birthday:

Teenager – Last year.

Looking back – Hold dear.

A healthy body. Besides passing on generally good genes, Dad taught us the importance of healthy eating and exercise, which laid the foundation for the good health I enjoy today. I remember hating the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises he made us do for a time (where did he find those?), but he was also a runner, and as a teenager I began to follow his example. Today I run about 20 miles a week, not to mention biking to work, training with weights, and stretching. Sometimes running feels like a chore, but mostly it feels like freedom, especially when I make myself face a cold, wet day and once I’m out there, realize there was really nothing to fear from the elements. Running clears my mind, and on an especially good day, a bounce of joy animates my stride.

Self-determination. Even though he insisted on a rigorous academic education and encouraged a life of the mind at home all the way through high school, he made it clear to me and my brother that he had no expectations for us after high school. He only wanted us to go to college if we wanted to, and he intentionally refrained from expressing any career preferences for us—it was completely up to us to decide who we wanted to be. He gave us the gifts of mental and physical preparation along with the freedom to choose any path we wanted. These are necessary for self-determination.

Love of nature. Long summer camping trips gave me an appreciation for nature. On one camping trip in particular, I remember being upset (about what I don’t remember), and sitting down to eat at a makeshift slab table Dad had constructed between two tree trunks. On the table was a piece of cut wood about two inches wide. In a fit of anger I picked it up and threw it into the river when no one was looking. Minutes later Dad called over to me, “There’s a piece of wood on the table for you.” I immediately felt a hot pool of regret well up inside me. When he found out it was gone (whether I told him the truth about how it disappeared, I don’t remember), he simply said, “I’ll make another one for you.” It’s the simplest chunk of wood, and one of the few artifacts from my childhood that I still have. It reminds me of the value of redemption, and being able to take “do-overs.” And nature is often a place where I can find the redemption I seek.

For much of my life, I’ve had a difficult relationship with my dad. It has taken me many years to appreciate fully the gifts he gave me and be grateful.

What are the redeeming qualities of the “difficult” persons in your life, and what gifts have you received from them?

Comments? Please make them here on my blog (and if you make comments on Facebook, please repeat here so that others not on Facebook can see. Am still working on how to link automatically between the two).

Coming up: State #49—Habitat for Humanity in Charleston, West Virginia

2 Comments
  1. Liz rosaaen permalink

    This is a lovely tribute to your dad. I’m so sorry about his illness. I’m betting you (and likely your dad) will have many powerful, meaningful moments over the next several months. talk about redemption:)

    For me, I have learned the most from the difficult people in my life….mostly, that I’M pretty difficult!

    • You, difficult? As in your own worst enemy? Some day I’d like to know more…. Thanks for your concern and comments. Sharing this with my dad represents some kind of reconciliation for us. I feel clean and complete right now. We’ll see what the next months bring.

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