Life Lessons I Learned from my Dad

Me and my dad in 1978
Me and my dad in 1978

The older I get the more I realize how much I’m like my dad. From overly critiquing the logistics of car commercials or only wanting to eat popcorn for dinner, I’m more like my dad than I ever thought. I was a mama’s girl growing up and thought every attribute of my personhood was a direct result of her influence. Now that she has been gone for a little over six years, I’m starting to recognize how very much like my father I am as well. My dad has dissimilar life philosophies than my mom did. They say opposites attract, and in their case, this is very true. I believe I benefited from having two very different people with different beliefs about life raise me and influence who I would become one day. These are the life lessons I learned from my dad:

1. Cross that bridge when you come to it

My mother was a world-class champion in worrying. She could come up with any disastrous scenario of any situation and worry about every minute detail until she was sick to her stomach. My dad has always been decidedly more laid-back. I remember many times worrying about something completely out of my control and him reminding me not to worry about it until it actually happened. When I was little I had no idea what the idiom “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” actually meant, but as I grew I began to appreciate my dad’s way of handling the unknown. As an adult I have really benefited from not being riddled with the anxiety constant worrying brings and appreciate my dad’s approach to life. Why worry about something that may never happen?

2. No good deed goes unpunished

I’ve heard my dad say on more than one occasion that no good deed goes unpunished. I’ve come to realize over the years that this means that even when I have good intentions and do something good for someone else, that doesn’t mean that my actions will always be appreciated. Sometimes they are even unwelcome. I used to say this mantra a lot when I worked in my first job as a social worker. I would work my tail off for the benefit of a client and not only have it not appreciated, but criticized. I had to realize that I’m not always going to get the praise and adulation I expect when performing “good deeds,” and yet I still need to do and be good.

3. Don’t always work up to your full potential 

My mom had a very strong work ethic. She believed if someone is paying you, you work as hard and adeptly as you can to accomplish the task. While I admire this, I noticed that when she came home from work she was so exhausted she had nothing left to give to her family. When I was older and able to articulate my feelings into words, I told her she gave so much of herself at the office that she had nothing left for her children at the end of the day. I know she listened and heard me, but the work ethic that she had learned from her parents won out every day. When I got my first job my parents gave me very different sets of advice. My mom told me to work as hard as I could and to do my very best every day. My dad told me not to work up to my full potential because then my employers would always expect me to work that hard and that was a quick way to work myself to death. I could still adequately perform my job duties without giving myself ulcers and a heart attack by the age of 30. More often than not I have stuck to my dad’s philosophy of not working up to my full potential. That is, until I had my first social work job and I loved it and was so dedicated to my clients. I noticed after a few years I had missed out on things like trick-or-treating with my children, my daughter’s first piano recital, and my son’s birthday party because I was working. I would come home so exhausted I was literally too tired to make a sandwich for dinner, let alone be a good parent. I know the job I was doing was important, but my family is more important to me.

4. There are jerks every where you go. 

I remember complaining to my dad once about a jerk I worked with and how I couldn’t wait to get a new job and be away from this jerk. My dad just chuckled and said that he has encountered a jerk, or several jerks, at every job he’s ever been at. There were jerks in the Army with him, there are jerks at church,  there are jerks at every job, and there are jerks in your neighborhood. The only person I can control is myself and how I react to the jerks.  I’ve had to learn to deal with the jerks and get on with my life, my job, my church work, and my job assignment. There are always going to be jerks. What’s important is that I’m not one of them.

5. Appreciate Nature

My dad loves nature. If you are Facebook friends with him you know that he likes to re-post pictures taken at various National Parks. Growing up in Utah, I had an abundance of nature to appreciate just off my front steps. My parents were always taking us for drives in the mountains and pointing out the beautiful views and the gorgeous changing of the leaves in Autumn. Whenever family from Back East came to visit he would take them to Antelope Island, in the middle of the Great Salt Lake, and show off the spectacular scenery. My dad loves to go camping and would accompany me and my friends on a church youth group trip up to Jackson Hole every summer for some river rafting. My mom stayed home and read her book. I’ve hiked with him in Zions and Arches National Park. We’ve enjoyed the sunrise over the ocean in Florida together. And whenever I leave the state of Utah and return, I see the beautiful Rockies rising in the distance and my heart thrills. I believe this is because my dad taught me to appreciate the beauty of the nature around me.

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Our family at Arches National Park in 1992

6. Stay true to your own conscience

One of the greatest things I admire about my dad is that when he was drafted into Vietnam he went as a conscientious objector. Because of his religion he is a pacifist and does not believe in taking a life for any reason. In the Army he was trained as a Medic and took care of POWs instead of taking more lives. I am proud that he was able to stay true to his religion and fulfill his duty as a citizen at the same time. My dad once told me that I always had a deep sense of what was right and wrong and was fair and what was unjust. I believe I got this from him. As an adult I refuse to be a party to things that offend my conscience, even if my culture, my religion, or my community tell me that what I believe is wrong.

7. When it’s important to your kids, you show up

I can’t say that my dad loves choir concerts, or piano recitals, or school plays, but he showed up to every one his kids were in. Even when “the game” was on. I can’t even imagine how many excruciatingly boring performances my dad sat through over the years but I never heard him complain (not to me at least). My dad and I are different religions and he often attends religious rituals that he doesn’t necessarily understand and can’t participate in.  That hasn’t stopped him from supporting me, my siblings, or his grandchildren in these rituals. He once told me that he may not understand something, but if it’s important to one of his kids, it’s important to him.

8. Unconditional Love

The greatest life lesson my dad taught me is the hardest one to write about. When I was in 3rd grade my mom was diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition in her breasts. This was the late 1980s and there weren’t a lot of good options. My parents decided together that my mother would have a bilateral mastectomy. It was very scary to me as an 8 year old to have words like “cancer” and “surgery” bandied about. It was also scary to see my mom’s body forever altered. Her breasts were never rebuilt and she lived the rest of her life with scars across her chest. I saw the unconditional love my dad had for my mother during this time. She couldn’t lift her arms up very far and couldn’t do a lot of things for herself. He bathed her, helped her on the toilet, gave her enemas when the pain pills caused her constipation, affirmed to her that he still loved her and was attracted to her even though her body had changed, and cheered on her recovery in his own quiet and supportive way. This had a lasting impact on me as I grew. I knew that marriage wasn’t a relationship to take lightly and sometimes when it comes to “for better or for worse” the worse is really much worse than you ever anticipated. Twenty years after my mom’s mastectomy, my parents were dealt an even more devastating blow. My mom was diagnosed with stage IV inoperable pancreatic cancer. Yet again, I watched my dad take care of my mom in a way that left her with the dignity to make her own choices. He protected her wishes. He supported her when she decided to do chemo, even though it caused more pain and didn’t prolong her life. He helped her make the decision to end treatment and opt for hospice care. And he was the person in the room with her when she died. Through their 36 year long marriage, through the fights and disagreements, through the births of three children, through illnesses, and mortgage payments, and choir performances, and summer camps, and finally an empty nest, my dad remained loyal to my mother. He taught me more about unconditional love through his example as a husband to my mother than he ever could with any words he’d ever speak. My dad taught me how to be a committed spouse and I only hope that I can show my husband the kind of unconditional love my dad taught me through the way he lives his life.

Happy Father’s Day, Dadoo! I love you.

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Hugging my dad after he married my step-mom in 2008

 

Cross-posted  at The Huffington Post

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