The lessons we learn from our fathers are something we will always carry. Whether they are direct or indirect, they make us who we are.
This is a series about our fathers and what they teach us. The tough lessons and the ones that we will pass on to our kids.
So, what is the most important lesson your dad has taught you? The question ripped through me like a rusted blade, though not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t because I had no answer, but rather because I wasn’t sure which of his many lessons to choose. I didn’t know which one lesson could ever do justice to the impact he’s made on me. My dad has taught me so many lessons I could write a book about them. And I did. It’s disguised as essays of advice I want to pass on to my son, but basically, it’s a collection of the best wisdom curated from a lifetime of growing up with my old man — if we’re giving credit where is due.
So, what is the most important lesson your dad has taught you? The words echoed in my brain. It was the first question I was asked during an interview for a local morning radio show. I was on to promote my book, but I could feel my emotions beginning to overcome. I fought to regain my composure. The last thing I wanted was to turn into a blubbering idiot on the radio. It’s not a terribly difficult question, but it sure is hard to answer. If that makes any sense at all. I guess anything will get that way when it encompasses thirty plus years of sentiment and devotion. And love. It always comes back to love.
So, what is the most important lesson your dad has taught you? I don’t even remember how I answered it that day, but I promise you, however I answered it then, is not how I’d answer it today. My perspective has changed drastically in recent months. The biggest change is a realization that, despite all the things he’s already taught me, I’m actually smack in the middle of the most important lesson yet. I’m learning from it every single day. It’s already made be a better man. It’s already opened my eyes to how to be a better father. And there’s still so much more to go.
See, I’m in a unique position. At best, there are a handful of times in our lives when we are anywhere close to fully aware of the impact a given event will have on our future as it’s happening. Your wedding day might be one of those times. Perhaps the days your children were born. They have that kind of potential, at least. But even those moments are so frenetic and fleeting that it’s hard to fully grasp their magnitude right then. Typically context comes after the fact. But not for me. Not this time. I’m completely lucid in a dream that often feels like a nightmare. And I have no choice but to continue on. It’s not ideal, but it’s the means to the elusive answer to that ringing question: So, what is the most important lesson your dad has taught you?
My dad is facing the fight of his life. In fact, it’s a fight for his life. In August of 2014 he was diagnosed with stage IV esophageal cancer. I can barely type those words without all sorts of angry feelings stirring inside me. So when I say my perspective has changed recently, this helps to explain why. You go through a full range of emotions when someone you love and admire is faced with a situation like his. You are forced to pay attention to what’s most important, and you are reminded to let go of what isn’t. Still, that’s easier said than done. What’s interesting is, of the entire family, he seems to be handling it best. It’s almost like if those damn chemo appointments didn’t pop up on his calendar he just might forget he’s even sick.
But those appointments do pop up. And, when they come, the side effects bruise him up good. You can’t go very long without some reminder of the real situation. Snap out of the dream and back into the nightmare. He always fights back, though. He is never down for long. And while he is happy to talk about how he’s doing, he’s so much more concerned with how you are. For someone in as precarious a situation as his, I have yet to see him unfairly lash out at any of us. No one would blame him if he did. I get unreasonably pissed off when one of my kids drops a spoonful of ice cream on the floor. But he’s endured more than twenty rounds of chemo. Twenty rounds of chemo. And smiled through all of it. Some of those smiles came through gritted teeth as the stomach aches doubled him over. Some of those smiles came through exasperated frustration at not being able to get up off the couch the first time he tried. But others came as he bounced his granddaughter on his knee, or as he helped his grandson pick up a new skill. Sometimes I catch other smiles as he watches, from a step or two back, my wife and I perform our roles as parents.
Over the course of this latest lesson — the lesson with no syllabus or curriculum, but a lifetime of homework and daily grades — I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about legacy. How does our time on Earth impact the lives of others — both those who have lived during our time and those who will come after us? Does it even matter? Can our lives really make a difference? What’s cool about the education I’m currently receiving is the informality of the learning. My dad may be the instructor, but there are no lesson plans. There are no class times or office hours. We just live. And the learning shows up. About a week ago, what showed up was the answer to my question about legacy. It was also a perfect example of why this education is unmatched.
My parents were recently at Dana-Farber in Boston to learn about a possible clinical trial. While there they made the obligatory tourist stop at Cheers, and my mom posted of them having a beer a picture on Facebook. Dozens of comments poured in. Most of them were well-wishers, offering prayers and hope for a productive appointment. Predictably, some folks asked them to say hello to Sam or Norm, but for the most part none of the comments really stood out. Except one. This one in particular caught my attention because it came from a name I vaguely recognized, and it subtly referenced a moment in my life that I will never, ever forget. The man who left the comment said that he, and his daughter, were praying for my dad and they hoped he would get good news while in Boston. Nothing in his words was all that different from the others. Instead, it was who he was — actually, who his daughter was — that made it special. The daughter is close to my age. About twenty years ago she was in danger. In fact, she very likely would have died were it not for one man’s efforts.
There’s a creek that runs perpendicular to the roads of my childhood neighborhood. It is usually a small trickle of water, no more than a couple inches deep, but it sits about a dozen feet below street level, with stone walls on either side. For the adventurous children in our neighborhood, it is a popular place to explore. One summer afternoon as a rainstorm began to tail off, my dad took my younger brother and me on a ride. He had tried to tell us how dangerous the creek could be after strong rains because it was prone to overflowing with very fast-moving water, but we were sarcastic little brats and laughed him off. So he told us to get in the car and see for ourselves. The creek runs the width of each block, tunnels under the street, and then opens back up again on the other side. There are about eight of these short tunnels and then it pours into one last long tunnel, before finally spilling out again more than a mile away.
When we got our first glimpse of the creek, my dad’s point was made loud and clear. The water was up to the top of the walls and it was moving. Fast. I remember feeling the same way right then about the creek as you might about the ocean. There is a tremendous sense of awe and respect combined with some fear and panic when you acknowledge its true power. We stopped for a minute and watched the water go by. And that’s when I saw something in the water. It took me a minute to figure out what it was. Then my dad and brother saw it, too. It was a head, bobbing a couple hundred feet upstream. Then, a few feet further upstream, we saw another person and another. Three people were in the creek. Moments after we spotted them, they disappeared into one of the small tunnels. They popped out the other side and continued drifting along toward the next one. They were only a couple tunnels away from the long one. The one they wouldn’t come back from.
Acting quickly, my dad put the car in park and told us to stay put. He ran along the bank in front of them and got in position. He grabbed the hand of a young man who was holding a fence and making a human chain my dad extended an arm out over the water. Two of the teens who were in the water had managed to get themselves out before they got to where my dad was stationed, but the current had been too strong for the third. She was cruising right toward him. Just before she got to the next short tunnel, they managed to grab hold of one another and he pulled her to safety. It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever seen. Only when I became older did I truly understand the magnitude of what happened and the stakes that were involved for both of them.
In a way, that’s all that really matters in life. It’s not about ego or being remembered for superficial accomplishments. It has nothing to do with wealth or possessions. I’m still learning, still being taught, but this much I know. Legacy is not about those things. It’s much simpler than that. It’s the ripple in the water that is there only because you’ve lived. And if we’ve done it well, the ripple keeps going, spreading wider and wider away from us, touching more and more people even long after we’re gone. My dad had undoubtedly saved that girl’s life that day in the creek. That alone would have been pretty awesome. But that isn’t where this story ends.
Remember that Facebook post my mom made in Cheers? As it turns out the man who commented is the father of the girl my dad rescued. It took me a couple minutes, but I finally figured out why the name looked so familiar. He mentioned that they both, he and his daughter, were hoping for the best for my dad. The man tagged his daughter in his comment, so with curiosity getting the best of me, I followed the link through to her profile to do a little stalking. That’s when I really understood the lasting effects of a strong legacy. The girl’s profile was full of photos of her and a young boy. Her son. A son who may not be here had my dad not saved his mom that day at the creek. And that is how the ripple works.
So, what is the most important lesson your dad has taught you? How would I answer that question today? I would say my dad has not taught me the most important lesson — he’s showing it to me. Every day. He’s living it. Because yes, the most important lesson in life is just to live. To live with passion. To live with purpose. To live with love. To live with others in mind. And to live with enough pride that you persist in your pursuit of what’s meaningful, but not so much that you do so with vanity.
I did not enroll in this class. I am not paying for these lessons — though no price would be too high. We’ve never discussed what he’d be teaching or what I was interested in learning. Had I been getting this education in a traditional school, the teacher likely would have played the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, and we’d watch as George Bailey was dramatically shown what the world would be like without him in it. But I’m not in a school setting. And this is not a movie. Instead, I get to see what the world is like with my dad in it. One day he won’t be in it anymore. One day he, just like the rest of us, will be gone. But his ripple will continue on forever. And I could not be more proud. And that is the most important lesson anyone has ever taught me.
In April 2014 RJ began a writing career, publishing his first book, Lessons for Joey: 100 Things I Can’t Wait to Teach My Son. The book is a collection of heartfelt advice on the importance of following one’s dreams and being a person of high character. At his blog, Lessons and Love, RJ writes about life, learning and love.
He lives in East Syracuse, NY with his wife, Danielle, and their three children: Joey, Gianna and Gabby.