Wisdom//

Three Life-Changing Lessons I Learned From My Beloved Dad

Part of the series "Living and Working Better"

Seanscott/Getty Images
Seanscott/Getty Images

Five years ago on May 16th, we buried my father, Joseph Caprino, in upstate New York, where I grew up and where he lived with my mother for 50 years. Dad died at age 92, just shy of his 93rd birthday, of prostate cancer that had spread throughout his body, He also suffered from dementia and a host of other serious ailments. The end of his life was so very difficult for him, and for my mother in her selfless care of him, during which time he also suffered from scoliosis, spinal stenosis and diabetes, and couldn’t stand erect or walk without assistance.

Watching my beloved and brilliant father’s decline was incredibly painful for all who knew him. He was a vibrant, inquisitive, and fun-loving man (we called him the “funster”) and was an incredibly active individual who, among other things,  served in WWII as Captain of the 656th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Dad was an avid golfer, committed father and husband, and an accomplished chemist and business manager, earning seven patents with General Electric in silicone rubber technology. In his last year, he lost his ability to reason and move about, and became dependent solely on the love and care of my mother and the amazing volunteers and staff at the Joan Nicole Prince Home hospice facility who tended to him tirelessly during the last three months of his life. (Here’s more about my dad’s life.)

My mother and I sat with Dad for several hours after he passed over, waiting for the funeral home to come and collect his body. During that time, I had the powerful chance to reflect in a new way on my father’s life and its impact on me. I experienced a myriad of thoughts and feelings that my normal, crazy-busy life and work didn’t allow me to focus on. I thought about life, death, meaning and purpose, regrets, joy, what makes life worth living and what I want to leave behind. 

 And I thought over and over about the beautiful sentiment Maya Angelou shared:

“I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

My father had a true knack for making the people around him feel truly loved and appreciated.

I had the stunning realization in sitting with him after his life energy had left him that no matter how “prepared” you think you are for the loss of a beloved, you’re simply not and can’t be. You have to learn and experience through time just how to adjust to being who you are in the physical absence of this individual who helped shaped you into being.

The Yiddish proverb “Man plans and God laughs” rings very true to me these days. My friend Jean shared, “Adjusting to the loss of a loved one is a very difficult thing until the memories are fully rooted in the place where our loved ones once were.” Such true words.

I think of my father every single day, and when I want to feel him near, I pick up and hold in my hand a beautiful silver cross that he wore around his neck during his time fighting in WWII.

On this Father’s Day, I bring to mind several vitally important life lessons I learned from being Dad’s daughter, and from observing how he lived his life, even throughout all his quiet suffering at the end. The lessons he taught me are:

#1: Live life fully and wholeheartedly so you have no regrets

The experience of losing Dad helped me realize even more clearly how important it is to live your life in a way that you will not regret, or bemoan, or wish you had done things differently. Through each choice he made — in his words, deeds, and beliefs — Dad lived each day to the fullest with such gusto and exuberance, embracing each moment as a way to squeeze the most joy and fun out of life.

I believe he would say now that he had no regrets. I think too that he knows he always did his best, even if that “best” fell short of what others thought he was capable of or “should” be like. That way of being has inspired me deeply, and I live by a rule that I stick to with fierce commitment:

“I promise to live each day so that I can lay my head on my pillow and have no regrets.”

How to do that? I try to always do my very best, and in the process, forgive myself when I fall down, which I do frequently. I work hard to act from my “higher self” — the version of myself that I recognize as having a different voice and energy, one that is not directed by my frail ego, or my insecurities and defensiveness, but is from a place of self-love and self-work, compassion and connectedness. And when I’m not acting and communicating from my highest self, I feel it and it shows, and I try to make amends for when I hurt people and treat them in ways that later feel wrong.

#2. Be impeccable with your word
The fabulous book The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz shares the rule, “Be impeccable with your word,” as a core agreement we need to make with ourselves in order to live fully, joyfully, lovingly and meaningfully. I think Dad followed this principle to the letter. I kid you not when I say that in my 52 years he was on the planet, I never heard him speak ill of another. I remember numerous times when I was a child coming home in the car from our Sunday Greek church services, when my sister and I would be tearing down and ridiculing something or someone we didn’t like, Dad would say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” 

That was his way of telling us to please stop tearing others down — he just wouldn’t allow it. Since I read The Four Agreements (which was a true life-changer for me), I have tried to be impeccable with my word, to not “sin” against myself and others with my words. I don’t always succeed, but I’m sincere in my effort to make progress on this.

Dad paved the way for me to understand that our words can be used as a salve for the soul, or as weapons of destruction. I try every day to choose the former.

#3. The lasting power of sweet, gentle kindness

My dear friend Helen shared with me when she learned that Dad had died: “Kathy, I am so sorry about your dad. I remember him as a truly original character who was so friendly and funny and took me in like his daughter’s best friend at the airport on our way to London. What a sweetie. I am sorry for your loss.”

Helen and I met in the JFK airport when we were just 20 years old, on the way to our year study abroad program in London. We’ve been friends ever since (almost 40 years), but I never knew she experienced Dad that way or remembered those moments so long ago, and am so grateful to know it now. There was a gentle sweetness and openness about Dad always, even when he said embarrassing, blunt things to my friends and I wanted to hide (like, “Hi Sally, you married yet?”). Or when he botched and mispronounced so many of my friend’s last names. He sure could put his foot in it, but even when he did, people sensed he wasn’t trying to be hurtful. They forgave him knowing he just lacked a bit of a filter.

He never meant ill or harm, and being with him felt to most people like being embraced in a huge, warm bear hug of love and acceptance. In our world today, and in my work in the media in particular, I see how we’ve let so much cruelty, snarkiness, judgment, hatred, divisiveness and negativity creep into every moment of our lives. In the news, the media, in our pop culture, we’re bombarded by fear, pain and suffering. Call me crazy, but I’d rather focus on gentleness, kindness, love and compassion – in the world around me and in what I choose to let into my personal sphere. I opt to focus my work and shine light on people who are changing our world for the better, making their impact in a positive, compassionate way.

I know this to be true (and it was reinforced in my training as a marriage and family therapist): What you focus on truly expands and grows, and you can indeed shape your experience of happiness, joy and fulfillment with committed, conscious action, despite your environment and genetics.

In honor of Dad and of all the fathers in the world today who have left a beautiful legacy for their children, I commit again to expanding my experience of goodness, love, joy and exuberant fun, just as he did.

This Father’s Day, I hope you’ll bring to mind someone who has shaped your life in a positive, beautiful way. If it’s your father, that’s wonderful. If it’s not your dad but another person (male or female) who has made a deep and lasting beneficial impact on you, I hope you’ll reach out to them. Write an email, a letter or a post about it, share a Facebook note, and just shine a loving light on their life lessons. And let’s do one thing today that will honor them and the role they played in shaping your life for the better.

Let’s remember too all those who brought more happiness and positivity into our world, and who have made us feel joyful and loved in a way no one else has.

Happy Father’s Day to you and yours.

(If you would, please take a moment too to read about the amazing Joan Nicole Prince hospice home that tended so lovingly to my dad in his final weeks. Your donations to the home, in honor of all those who could benefit from hospice care at the end of their lives, would be ever so deeply appreciated. Thank you!) 

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