One of my strongest childhood memories is this: My younger brothers and I are sitting close together on our living room rug, looking up at my father who sat in an armchair in the corner of the room. He had gathered us together to talk about what was to come. We all knew, of course. He had been battling cancer for years and my parents were always very open with us. Even at the ages of 10, 8 and 4 we knew he would not be with us much longer. Somehow my father, with all that he had to face, had the strength to bring us together that day to tell us one very important thing. He told us to never, not for one second, ever, feel sorry for him. That in his 33 years he had lived a fuller, happier life than some people see in 100 years. That he was grateful for everything he had been given.
Those words have always made my grief just a little bit easier. To know that he died without regret and with a feeling of true gratitude. I can remember even while he was sick he kept finding more and more little ways to fill up his life with happiness (and our lives with memories). There were family trips to Cooperstown and Disney World. There was the hot air balloon ride he took just because it was something he had always wanted to do. It would be easy to think “oh how sad that someone so intent on really living life should have his cut short”, but remembering his words shifts my thoughts to “oh, thank goodness that someone who was given only 33 years knew how to make the best of his time.”
I am 33 now. And a mother of 2 young kids. Next April, I will be older than my father ever got to be. There is something about this — about being the age that he was and about having children of my own — that makes me feel a new kind of connection to him. Up until recently I only saw him through a child’s eyes. Now I imagine how I might feel if I were in his place. If I knew that the end of my life was near. That I was leaving behind young children who would be forced to cope without me; a husband who would lose his partner in life. Would I be able to look my own family in the eyes and tell them that I didn’t feel sorry for myself? That my life was complete and I could not have asked for more?
I realize, with some surprise, that maybe I could. I’m sure I’d feel a million other emotions (and it’s painful to think of the things he must have felt) but I believe that one of them would be gratitude. My father’s words on that day have stayed with me. I have done my best to fill my life up with everything that is important — love, family, happiness. I’ve made the decision to feel grateful for the small pleasures in life and to do my best not to dwell on the little ways life is not always perfect. Am I always successful? Of course not. And that’s ok. We all need to be sad sometimes and mourn both the small and big disappointments in our lives. But, for me at least, it’s not ok to let this sadness consume me. To become who I am.
There is only one thing parents want for their children: happiness. People say that all the time, but it becomes a crystal clear and absolutely overwhelming feeling once you have your own children. You know you would do anything if it could ensure their happiness; that my father would have done anything to know that my brothers and I would find a way to be happy. How could I ever allow myself to live anything less than a full and joyful life?
Happiness is a choice. I can spend my time grieving all of the things my father hasn’t seen. My wedding day, the birth of my children, the birth of my nephew (his namesake)…or I can feel grateful for the things he did. For the thousands of days he woke up and saw his children smiling back at him. For the joy he must have felt the day my mother walked down the aisle toward him. For the hours upon hours spent cuddled up reading with us; playing ball in the yard; sitting on the floor and playing with our toys with us.
When I see my kids laughing or smiling or holding hands, I feel full. And I understand how, at 33, my father could have felt full, too.
Special thanks to guest author K. O’Reilly for sharing this story with us.