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Family Is Everything

The Lesson Dad Left Behind

My Father, overseeing his kingdom.

It is, without a doubt, one of the strongest memories I’ll retain for the rest of my life.

So much about that day remains crystal clear. I close my eyes and can see, smell and feel it all over again. Fifteen years have gone by, but I swear…it still feels like last week.

The sterile, antiseptic smell of the hallway I found myself pacing repeatedly the nights I pulled duty watching him.

The arrangement and color of the furniture in the waiting room….brown, flat, colorless couches and chairs, outdated magazines….not inviting at all. Then again, I was in the COPD ward, a place where not many patients leave after they check in.

The chapel on the first floor where I, the eternal agnostic, went to pray the night before that he be taken quickly, if that’s how it was to end. Please, Lord…no long, extended time on the oxygen machine. He’s lived his life in the most dignified manner he could possibly muster. Isn’t that enough? Give him his due. He’s my father, for Christ’s sake.

The somber, expressionless faces of my mother, brothers and sisters, all huddled around my Dad’s hospital bed the very next night as the Pastor from his church performed last rites….right after he took his last breath.

No one spoke.   There were just hugs, gasps and tears.  

The sound of heartfelt “I love you’s” that we, the stunned, surviving children exchanged with each other as we wept.  That’s how Dad would of wanted it. 

The dank, dark, clammy Wisconsin October evening that slapped me in the face as I exited the hospital for the last time on the night he left us….home to tearfully break the news to my kids that Grandpa was gone.

Standing at the front door of my house…thinking about what I was going to say….looking at my kids through the living room window.

Contemplating my own fatherly relationship with my two children.

I’m not ready for this.  No…I’m not prepared for this.  This is all way up too up close and personal.

                                                                    * * *

Sometimes, the choice to face maturity is not of your own. It compels and thrusts you into the uncharted waters of responsibility without warning, preparation, a sailboat or even a life jacket. I thought my journey earnestly began on the day I married my wife back in 1993.

Turns out I was wrong.

Nine years later, I lost my father to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in the fall of 2002. He was a smoker for many years, and passed as a direct result of his cigarette habit, even though he stopped smoking some fifteen years before his death.

Our children barely knew the man that was their Grandfather. My son had just turned five which was the exact same age I was when I lost my own granddad. Our daughter was only three months old, and as expected, has no memory of her interactions with Grandpa.

Ironically, that’s one of the commonalities I share with my kids. All three of us didn’t know who our grandparents really were, short of the stories that aunts, uncles and other relatives re-tell us in passing conversation or during family gatherings. It’s one of the few regrets I have about the time frame in which my wife and I decided to start our family. How I wish my kids knew what a cool guy Grandpa really was.

Part of that stems from the realization that I didn’t understand how cool he was until he was gone. That’s created some anguish for me, because I didn’t give him the credit he deserved while he was living.

I knew has was a dedicated, loving father. I knew he wanted his kids to have more than what he had himself growing up. Dad was the guy who would take the shirt off his back and give it to his children if they really needed it. Make no mistake, he’d grumble about it for thirty minutes first, but eventually, he’d dig deep and do something to help, even if that meant short-changing my parent’s own needs.

He was proud of his family, even though each one his six kids had very different personalities, values and ideals. On occasion, those differences would create varying levels of conflict when there was too much “together time” among the clan. To no one’s surprise, it still happens today.

Sometimes the skirmishes are small and inconsequential….just a normal part of being a sibling in a large family. Others, not so much.

Occasionally, harsh words are said, opinions are expressed and feelings are hurt. Gaping crevices in relationships can be formed where there was once at least a bridge. Sometimes, brother and sisterly love gets a healthy road test.

When our own children can’t see eye to eye on a particular issue or problem that can’t be resolved, my wife and I tell them the best piece of advice we can give: “accept it and move on.” I admit freely some of that comes from the fact that we’re not necessarily interested in justice. We want quiet. Still, we know they’ll have times where they won’t see eye to eye.

And that’s okay. Accept it and move on.

That was how Dad operated, although he never verbalized those words to me. Instead, he preferred to let his actions do the talking. Long winded lessons on family unity was never his style. He might of given you a look or asked you some leading questions, but that was about all. It was up to you to figure out the takeaway.

In fairness to him, he could’ve said a million words that were laced and dripping with fatherly guidance when I needed it, but I wouldn’t have heard a thing. Maybe he did, but I was far too busy tending to my own needs and not tuning in. That’s pretty common with a lot of families, as parents are not viewed as the “keepers of the knowledge base” by their own children.

I can’t say I have an endless list of things my Dad taught me. He had his flaws and shortcomings like every other human being that walks this Earth. What did transfer is perfectly embodied in this quote I found on the internet:

“No family is perfect. We argue. We fight. We even stop talking to each other at times, but in the end, family is family. The love will always be there.”

I will admit…it’s corny, but it’s accurate to my particular brood, and largely subscribes to my Dad’s belief about how the family should function. It’s the same logic my wife and I use on our own children, and surely in respect to our own relationship. It also extends to how I operate as a manager, leader and facilitator. That’s where the best material comes from, after all.

And if that helps me to be a better husband, father, and brother….well…then I guess Dad gave me a better life jacket then I expected.

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