My father and me on my wedding day, just before leaving for the church. Santa Clara, California, 1984.
A few months before my father died, we had an interesting conversation about trust. I remarked that we were polar opposites in that he was slow to trust new people and situations, while I might have been too ready to trust them right away. I wished he could sometimes be more optimistic and less skeptical.
Surprisingly, he agreed with me and added that he wished he could have been that way, too.
As far as I knew, he had never said this before. I asked him if something had happened in his life that had influenced him to think this way. He briefly pondered my question. “I want you to understand,” he began, “that sometimes in this life, you have to protect yourself.”
Protect yourself. How many times had he said this before? As my three younger sisters and I grew up and went out on our own in the world, my father often reminded us to be wary of what we said and did. In his view, we never knew who might be watching or testing us. He did not want anyone or anything to take advantage of us. I took it as wanting us to look over our shoulders all the time and thought it was very pessimistic. Though his advice about thinking ahead made sense, it seemed as though my father’s outlook was based on apprehension and pessimism. I struggled to understand and told myself that for all his wonderful qualities, he would never change in this regard.
Protect yourself. My father lived through traumatic times, but he saw no reason to wear these on his sleeve. He witnessed and was the subject of man’s inhumanity to man. These were major life events over which he had no control or could not have predicted, yet they occurred in life’s most mundane settings. Being skeptical and cautious – and encouraging his children to do the same – were ways my father thought would protect himself and us from ever being threatened or betrayed again. He had formed a protective shell and would not let anything or anyone penetrate it again.
Protect yourself. Now that my children are grown and are making their way in the world, I find myself sometimes wanting to protect them, much as my father tried to protect me. I have to stop myself from telling them what to do and how to do it. They will make and learn from their own mistakes, as we all do.
In the months that followed our conversation on trust, my father’s prostate cancer metastasized and began taking ruthless advantage of his body. It wracked him with pain, forcing him to go from being fiercely independent to become more dependent than ever on others for his daily needs. It was heartbreaking. He had protected his family all his life, and now we were powerless to protect him.
But a strange thing happened. When things seemed at their worst, a new light seemed to go on inside my father. He became more hopeful, trusting, and optimistic. He greeted everyone with joy and kindness and patience, from his doctors to his hospice caregiver to the man who delivered his medical equipment. No longer did he see the need to be guarded around strangers. Now he regarded them differently that he would have before. He trusted and respected them, even as it became physically harder to interact with them. The cancer had betrayed his body, but it had not betrayed his soul.
He was hopeful, almost to the end, that he could defeat the cancer. When it became clear that this would not be, his hopefulness was transformed to peaceful acceptance. My precious father, ever amazing, found grace in giving up the control he had exercised all his life and accepted his new path to the inevitable that awaits us all.
I understand now. Whether or not we understand the reasons for what people do, it is important to accept them for the way they are.
My father’s life and attitude were influenced by an era of politics and culture, among other things, that converged to shape him into the man that he became. But there were also other forces at work: the unique combination of values of love, faith, family, honor, respect, discipline, and strength that he learned from his parents in the context of his unique life.
We were more alike than we were different. He influenced me to become the person I am today and shared life’s lessons from his heart. He was a loving and devoted father and the best parent anyone could aspire to be. I will always be grateful for all the time we spent together and the closeness that we shared.
I had the perfect father. I love him exactly as he was and would not want him to be any other way.
To read the other installments in this three part series, please click on the links below:
Part 1: Church Record Sunday – Life’s Lessons: Unbreakable Faith
Part 2: Wisdom Wednesday – Life’s Lessons: The Defining Moments
Copyright © 2013 Linda Huesca Tully