My father, the Mysterious

My father, the Mysterious - student project

When I was a child, I was daddy’s girl. If my mother wanted something done around the house and felt my dad might say no to her, she’d say “Tell your father to fix the bathroom door”. If my brother wanted our fast food or movie tickets comped, he’d go “Come on, you know it works better when you ask him”. We had a special bond. I remember being so curious about his past. I would ask him questions about his childhood and adolescence, prying into his troublemaking days, drug experimentations and family feuds. He was an open book. Not once were my questions too personal or inappropriate for him. I have so many memories of sitting in the passenger seat during long drives and asking him countless questions;  Did you ever get high at school? Which of his 11 siblings was the smartest, the biggest asshole, the one he loved the most? Who was a better driver, me or my brother? Nothing was off limits. He even told me at what age he lost his virginity: seventeen.

 

I was 22 when he died. That was 14 years ago. My father was oh-so-fun and light-hearted. He was the king of dad jokes. Back then, I was embarrassed when he’d make wisecracks in front of my friends but in hindsight, he was hilarious and young at heart. All my friends adored him. He didn’t take life too seriously and when I found myself going through a rough patch, he always knew what to say to bring me back to earth. Every time I felt depressed or angry, he would put things in perspective by reminding me of my luck and mirroring it with other people’s misfortunes.  Even battling cancer, he knew to look at the dying children who had only known illness their whole lives. He’d say “They never got to live. I’ve had 50 great years surrounded by the loves of my life. I’m really lucky.” He was a pro at calibrating the drama with a truck-load of wisdom.

 

But today the drama continues and he is not here to make sense of it for me. The older I get, the problems I face become increasingly more real. Divorce, chronic depression, financial and professional instability, unfortunately, don’t come with a handbook. Navigating through life’s shark-infested waters is not as effortless as he made it out to be. Where was he getting his insight? How did he make life so simple?

 

Looking at him, one would surely label the man uncomplicated. He’d get up at 4 in the morning and work on things that needed to be done around the house. Sometimes, like a diligent military man, he would shine all the shoes in the house before the rest of us got up. On other occasions, I would awake to find him reorganizing the family photo albums. He always had a project that needed tending. Furthermore, he was genuinely happy to take us to our swimming lessons and watch in the bleachers or to sit for hours after dinner to help us with our homework. He was naturally present in our lives.

 

But how on Earth could he be so consistently joyful and unencumbered by life’s problems? How did he find meaning in a seemingly simple life? Of course, he wasn’t a saint. He had his faults; he could be a little selfish and at times insensitive. He wasn’t overly ambitious or meticulous. But to this day, I have yet to meet another human being as connected to life with his heart.  How strangely mystifying!

 

I can admit it now: I have spent years as a lost soul, floating motionless into the abyss. I had no reason to get out of bed, so I simply didn’t. I searched for meaning through service in a psychiatric hospital, traveling the world, meditating in India and teaching yoga. And for the life of me, I couldn’t bloody find it. Everything was heavy, everyone was impossible and there was no reason to be a part of the world.  Twenty-two years of close proximity to my father the Buddha didn’t seem to rub off on me. I eventually found my way (partially) out, but the effortlessness of my father’s happiness remains a mystery to me.

 

Let me recount a little story that sums up the wonderfully zen person my father was.   When he had gotten the news that his cancer had metastasized, he broke the news to us gently. It took a couple days for me to properly assimilate the information but once I did, I was a mess. In those days, I hardly ever cried. But that evening, as my father sat alone in the living room watching hockey, I lied down on the opposite couch and started balling. I was 20 or 21, so even though I understood intellectually that he was leaving us, I had no awareness of the beast that is death and the monstrous impact it was about to have on my psyche. The wailing was immensely cathartic. And long-winded. Dear God, it wouldn’t end. My father came to lie down next to me and he held me in his arms for a long time. He cried as well and consoled me as best as he could. Even in my emotional stupor, I was able to recognize my fortune in having such a closeness with my father. Eventually, he went back to the other couch, where his attention was mainly centered on the hockey game. Every few minutes he would look over at me with compassion in his eyes. But I was inconsolable. Eventually, he sighed and said, “Sandra, you really can’t think of anything else?” To this day, I find this reaction priceless. For him, the answer was obvious: cry it out, then move on. I was stuck in this matrix, where all I could see was the excruciating pain of having to say goodbye to the most important man in my life. Yet even to him, life went on.

 

Life simply happens around us and getting caught in a web of suffering is not the answer. Of course, sometimes the pain is ever so visceral and damaging. I was justified in crying that night when I realized my world was crumbling down.  I was also right to feel tortured the afternoon of his diagnosis when he told me his odds: 50-50. Death was more than just possible, it was probable. But again, my father calibrated. He told me to look at the other half, the living half. He looked me straight in the eyes and said “Fifty percent chance of living, that’s a lot. You can’t look at the worst case scenario, that’s not helping anyone.” And so began a journey of him showing us how to live like a fighter, and consequently, how to die like a warrior.

 

To feel the pain with all its might is better than to repress and ignore. But the bottom line is that wallowing in it or wishing it away only prolongs suffering. Sages, monks, and sadhus dedicate their entire lives to assimilating this knowledge. It is easy to stay focused on the pain because it is usually stronger than anything else happening around us. But to observe the torment with equanimity while understanding its impermanence is to be on the way to nirvana, or liberation.

 

If we are lucky, we have all met a person like this; someone who seems to be good at life, who gets it. We see them walking around with their smiles, making the most of difficult situations without their heads full of doubts and just generally inspiring the shit out of us. To the untrained eye, they appear normal, perhaps mundane. But upon closer inspection, a person who loves and laughs easily every day and finds the bright side of facing struggles- even death - is a straight up gangster spirit. My father showed us what living in the light means. I can never un-see how a warrior is. As transparent as my father was, the mastery with which he conquered life remains elusive to me. And yet, at the risk of sounding like Yoda, this knowledge is already a part of me.  Access light side of the force, must I….