My family lost my dad at age 91 on October 7, 2015. After spending most of my life feeling distanced from him, in the past five years I opened my heart to a more meaningful relationship with him. Although knowing him better led to a much deeper sense of loss, I would not trade those five years for the world. Looking more closely at my dad’s life and getting to know him better taught me much about the way I want to live my life.
My dad taught me the value of hard work. He stayed in good physical condition for most of his adult life by lifting outrageously heavy cash registers and walking miles during his years as a salesman. His small business never led to national recognition or significant financial success, but he always strived to provide for his family. I am convinced that if he had earned money proportional to the hours he worked, he would have been a millionaire a few times over. Years before the Internet and iPhones, he recognized the valuable role emerging technologies could play in helping people have a better customer service experience. He used his natural abilities to program the first monstrously-sized computers decades before the Geek Squad ever existed, and sent text messages from his cell phone at age 90. I learned a job feels a lot less like work when we recognize how it benefits others, and to follow the excitement of anything that genuinely sparks our curiosity.
My dad taught me that we often fail to recognize the amazing luxuries in our daily lives. During his five years in the retirement apartment, I asked him about his childhood. I learned his parents struggled to provide the basic necessities of food and warm clothing for my dad and his five siblings. My grandfather worked for the railroad during the Great Depression, and as early as they could, my dad and his siblings spent their free time trying to help the family by working their own jobs or doing chores around the house. My dad remembered what a big deal it was when his mom treated him to an ice cream cone once a week. Christmas stockings were filled with apples and oranges. Because my dad knew a lot of hardship and uncertainty growing up, I learned to celebrate the daily ability to put enough food on the table and treat children to a few gifts that are wants, not needs.
My dad taught me that love can be shown in many different ways. My grandparents raised their children in lean times and focused most of their energy trying to provide the basic necessities. Largely as a result of his childhood, my dad saw the primary goal of his own fatherhood as working hard to make ends meet. I believe watching his parents experience constant anxiety about money made an incredibly significant impression on my dad. I learned he may not have said it very often in words, but he tried to show us his love through his daily efforts to achieve financial security.
In his later years, my dad taught me the importance of opening yourself up to a world beyond your own four walls. During his five years in the retirement apartment, I looked for news, weather and popular culture events to talk to him about. He liked to discuss different topics and this motivated me to seek out interesting things that would engage him. He had an especially good knack for dwelling on stories where people experienced misfortune, and soon I had a new challenge – find examples of people trying to make the world a better place. He may not have been the one to bring up those positive stories, but he certainly welcomed the opportunity to take a break from bad news. I learned there are plenty of sad stories in the world that can give us perspective and show us where help is needed, but purposefully seeking good news gives us much-needed courage to keep hope alive.
My dad taught me you cannot directly change another person, but people can choose to be changed after hearing someone else’s words and witnessing their actions. He and I did not change our core beings as a result of all those conversations over the past five years. Yet subtle changes happened. He chose to make communication a priority and took an interest in his grandchildren’s lives. I chose to look beyond the surface and see how his childhood had shaped him. I was able to see the different forms that love can take, and the responsibility I have to do more with what I have been given. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that without our own self-focused expectations getting in the way, there is no limit to what another person can teach us.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.