I always thought my father was simple. Not in the mentally-handicapped kind of way, but definitely not complicated like me. Sure, we had things in common. Like me, he went to medical school, completed a residency, and practiced as a physician, so I certainly didn’t consider him unintelligent. Rather, he always struck me as almost child-like, easily elated by the most mundane things, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, much as my dog finds pure bliss in cuddling up with a tennis ball. Dad was the kind of guy who could curl up on a park bench, reading all day, while the rest of us hiked to the top of a mountain. Or he would warm his toes by the fireplace while the rest of us skied black diamond runs. At the end of the day, I would have accomplished so much more than he had, but somehow, he always seemed to be the happy one. I never really pondered why that was until Dad died three years ago in much the way he lived, simply, and with great joy in the present moment. It has taken me this long to move past the pain of losing him to discover, with almost laughable surprise, that my father may be the greatest spiritual teacher I will ever know.
I’ll have to paint a picture of my Dad for you. Imagine a guy with a limp and a cane, whose hair is always unkempt, but in a cute, bedhead sort of way. Dress him in out-of-style clothes with wide-collared shirts and pink, pleated shorts. Make sure he’s wearing dark socks with the shorts and comfy, well-worn docksiders. Then paste a crooked, goofy smile on him and put a twinkle in his electric blue eyes. Now imagine him sucking in his cheek to affect a Donald Duck voice, and you’ve got Dad. Not exactly the guru image you may have envisioned. But the lessons I have learned from him are far greater than any I have read in books or garnered from a church. And his lessons are pure, untainted by doctrine, agenda, or financial motivation.
Dad was a regular sort of guy until he hit thirty-something. Like most dads of that era, he had little time for noisy children or household tasks and preferred pursuing his hobbies to reading bedtime stories to his kids. He certainly didn’t know me well, and although I admired my father, I didn’t know him either. But something changed when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It’s as is his disability opened a window in his heart that transformed him into a magnet for children and dogs, as if he emitted some unseen love frequency that only they heard. I was already a sullen teenager by then, so maybe I couldn’t hear it, but something definitely shifted in our relationship. Previously, trying to talk to Dad was like talking to the wind. As soon as we would get close to connecting, he would be on to something else, at least internally, and I would be left feeling alone. But after multiple sclerosis left him flawed, he would listen for hours, always wanting more than I had time to give. What I had always wanted from a father was suddenly available to me full force. Only I was too busy to receive it.
I had no clue how to feel about Dad’s disability. All the other Dads I knew were still running marathons, but Dad seemed resigned to his fate. Others might have become angry and bitter at having their vitality shot down in their youth, but Dad almost seemed happier after multiple sclerosis took part of his life. Even as a teenager, I shook my head. Why didn’t he fight it? Get angry and try to change it? Why didn’t he fly around the country, seeing specialists, to see if anyone could undo this fate? But he didn’t, at least not the way I remember it. Instead, he took special ski lessons for the handicapped and skied until he no longer could. Then he gave away his skis and started riding his bicycle, until he fell and broke his hip. That’s when he discovered the joy of park benches, and you could see the sheer rapture in his face, as he watched the birds, noticed the leaves on the sidewalk, and listened to music on his headset.
When his partners felt that his disability got in the way of his medical practice, they fired him with no notice. One day, he was a doctor. The next day, they had put him out to pasture, in what should have been the prime of his career. I was training to be a doctor by that time, and I was raring to go, ready to sue the practice for discrimination. But not Dad. He said, simply, “Maybe it’s better this way” and walked away from twenty years in practice, with a limp and his head held high.
I never once heard him question his fate. When life handed him another card from the deck, Dad just played whatever he was dealt. Me, I would have been kicking and screaming, clinging to my life with both hands and trying to bend it to my very strong will, which was all I knew how to do. But not Dad. Instead, he tapped his foot to bluegrass music and smiled his lovable grin. It occurred to me, back then, that maybe Dad lacked the fighting spirit I had in abundance. Maybe he was in some way weaker, less feisty, more passive. I diminished him with those thoughts. I thought he should have been different.
Years later, Dad developed prostate cancer, and then only six months after that, we discovered he had widely metastatic melanoma that had spread to his brain. The poor guy was only fifty-nine years old. If it had been me, I would have been mad at the world. It was so unfair. After all, he had lived a good life, been a loving father, a compassionate doctor, an adoring husband, and a devoted servant of God. Why should such tragedy fall on him at every turn? But Dad never asked that question. Instead, he reveled in the joy of a spicy chicken wing with really crisp celery and the perfect blue cheese dressing. He faced his impending death with gracious calm and unending grace. I asked him why he wasn’t angry, why he didn’t berate God and feel bitter.
Dad said, “I don’t mind what is.”
I remember shaking my head when Dad said that. How could he not mind what was? He had cancer- not once, but twice. He was dying. It was so incredibly wrong. The way I saw it, Dad had been dealt a sorry hand in life. To me, his life seemed unlucky. I had to wonder if he was being punished for some transgression in a prior life or if there simply wasn’t any fairness in how life turns out. Certainly, if life were merit-based, Dad deserved more. I couldn’t understand how he couldn’t mind the way things had turned out. It seemed naïve to me. His genes made me who I am, but clearly, we were not the same. I would have been different. I would have rebelled against what was and fought for more.
When I asked Dad if he was scared to die, he said, “I’m not scared, I’m joyful.” He left this life with no regrets, with a smile on his face, and my mother threw herself on his body when he left it and said, “David, I love the way you died.”
That was three years ago, and things have changed for me. It has taken me three years to have any clue what Dad meant by “I don’t mind what is,” and only now do I appreciate how many years I was blessed to spend in the presence of someone who knew way more than I may ever know about radical surrender, about letting go with both hands. Me, I’m more like Rachel Naomi Remen in her youth, who wrote, “Anything I had ever let go of had claw marks on it.” My own life has been filled with challenges in the years since Dad died, filled with scratching claw marks everywhere. My seemingly charmed life got flipped on its head, and instead of surrending to the changes, I just struggled more, as if efforting would undo everything that had changed. But gradually, my arms and legs got tired of fighting the current of my life, and I have just started to feel the peace of floating along with what is. I am only just now beginning to understand what Dad knew years ago.
As it turns out, I am my father’s daughter, after all. I too don’t mind what is, these days. Who would have believed that it would mean losing Dad to find myself? I have to wonder if he is watching, eating his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, sitting on a celestial park bench. If he is, I hope he is smiling his lopsided smile, with his messed-up hair, and watching me, nodding.
It used to be that I was forever racing after some means to an end. I was studying to become a doctor or churning out art to become a professional artist or trying to conceive so I could become a mother or writing a book so I could be a published author. I was never just being. Dad, on the other hand, found it harder to do, as he lived his life, and I guess that made it easier for him to just be. By the end, he had essentially stopped doing for decades, and maybe Being for that long was enough. Maybe he lived more life than those who live decades longer. Maybe it was time to stop Being and to move on to whatever comes next.
Me, I’m just beginning to be present in the here and now, to stop striving, to slow down, to find that still point in a turning world, to feel the true joy in being alive just so I can gaze outside at the gray sky, where the fog wafts in and out between the trees, while a hummingbird inspects a wilting rose on this cool Thanksgiving morning. I am thankful to just Be, and I am grateful my father had so much to teach me, even now. I know I still have much to learn, and it gives me joy and peace to realize that my father’s lessons will continue to serve as my guidance, that in this way, he lives on. I need only reflect on his example to have him here, right beside me.
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