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Monday, January 16, 2017

Lessons from my Father

In the summer of 2014, a Peace Corps peer’s father passed away suddenly. Considering my own had been battling cancer for seven years by then, it was a reality check for me. The next day, I wrote this in my journal:

Our welcome packet [for Peace Corps Lesotho] made no pretenses about the death we would face in Lesotho. The stark words said, “you will make friends and they will die during your service.” Although honest, they did not really prepare me for the three deaths in the training village that have happened in the month we have been here or for my language instructor and my host mother to both leave the same weekend to attend family funerals.

What about the suddenly too real possibility of a family member or friend passing away during my service? In the States, I felt mentally prepared for the possibility. I remember my Peace Corps interview two years ago and acknowledging something catastrophic occurring within my immediate family being the only reason I could anticipate terminating my service early.

Last Thanksgiving, when I said goodbye to Grandpa for the first of three times I thought, “This might be the last time…please God, don’t let it be.” In March, during my visit with my father, ha asked, “How do you feel about going away with me sick?”

My answer, which clearly pleased him, was, “It’s been seven years, life cannot be on hold forever.” While that answer still rings true today it feels like a bigger sacrifice right now. It is more than twenty-four hours of lonely travel to get home.

The Peace Corps response to my peer’s situation has been great. Once she heard what had happened, they got her on the first available flight home. She gets two weeks of emergency leave before she needs to discuss returning with Washington.

I cannot help but wonder, were I her, would I return? Mid-service, I think I would give returning a try. But, right now, during training, I genuinely do not know if I would. Would two weeks out of training leave me ill prepared for the future in Lesotho? Would I have the stamina to deal with training and integrating while also mourning and coping? Would I be abandoning my family in their hour of need? It is hard to say what I would decide. I can only pray it does not happen and offer my deepest condolences and support to my friend and her family.

Family dinner shortly before I was to
return to New England.
Two and half years later, this journal entry has become real. Although he had more energy and vitality than when I left for Lesotho, my father passed away suddenly just before Christmas. Thanks to providential timing, I spent a week visiting an active and (relatively) healthy father during my home leave. Then, just before I was to say goodbye for nine more months, the story changed. Instead of laughing together, well wishes, and teasing about having not written a blog post all month, there was an ambulance, ICU, exhaustion, and tears.

Throughout it all, I could not help but wonder in awe at the timing of it. The entire situation is one I would rather never face, but a few weeks earlier or later and it would have felt so much worse.

Despite that, I am now facing the same questions I asked when my friend’s father passed away one month into my Peace Corps experience. Although my training is complete, I have just moved villages and am back to needing to get to know people, my community, and a new job. Do I have the stamina to do those things while I mourn and cope with my new reality? Am I abandoning family when I am needed?  I have some incredible and wonderful friends in Lesotho-some Peace Corps, some Basotho-are they the people I need supporting me through this? Are they physically close enough to me to even be capable of supporting me?

Despite these questions plaguing me, I know I will return. Grief, mourning, shock, and sorrow are not an excuse to abandon life. And the reality is, my life, for now at least, is in Lesotho.

So, I will continue to embrace the life that made my father proud. I will continue to write about it as I hear him tease me whenever I lapse. I will continue to explore the world and seek the adventurous paths that made him as envious as he was proud.

Throughout my service, every time someone else has faced a family emergency, it has been an unwelcome reminder that life in America continues and life includes wonderful moments but also terrible ones.

For those of you who never had the opportunity to know my father, here are my words from his ceremony a few days ago: 

Playfulness and Wisdom Embodied
My father was many things before he found his place here on Sanibel. He was a sailor, a ski instructor, a classic rock buff, a teacher, a road biker then a mountain biker, and even a professional model. He was ahead of his time, successfully selling car phones in the late 80s when not even movie stars had them yet.

When opportunities arose, he was the first to say, “well, maybe that will actually work.” This attitude led him on many adventures like sailing a racing boat from Antigua to the US. My dad’s attitude and mindset holds many life lessons for us. I am going to share only four.

Lesson One: To take the mundane or everyday and make is fantastical.

Christmas Cookie Bonanza during my visit.
Dad looked at every moment and a possible adventure. Simple activities became more entertaining due to his outlook and humor. Even something as rote as leaving a voice mail became an adventure with my father. I don’t recall ever hearing the boring, “Hey, it’s Dad. Call me.” Instead, my messages were at least “Elizabeth, it’s your father calling…” [in a deep British accent] and more often they were long comedic sketches utilizing a variety of voices. This attitude of taking something simple that happens all the time and using it to have fun and make people smile is one I hope to carry with me for the entirety of my own life.

Lesson Two: Taking care of ourselves and setting boundaries is critical.

Dad taught many of us, at all ages, how to successfully set boundaries in both professional and personal settings. He valued the need for personal space and time, even if it would only be used for life maintenance like laundry and dishes. As a result, he taught us to change our own language to preserve that time. He coached us to effectively stand up for ourselves while still being friendly and open.

Lesson Three: Sometimes you just need a better story.

Dad was a huge fan of telling a good story and he had a million of them. Over the last few weeks, my sister and I have recounted many times he encouraged us to “tell a better story.” One of my favorites occurred when I was in college. I inherited the family love of sailing and a galley accident on the boat I worked on had burned my arms and face. When Dad called to check in, I lamented the horror of returning to college with my arms bandaged like a mummy and having to tell people the injuries came from something so lame. Instead of telling my 21-year-old self how silly my worry was and reminding me how lucky I was in the situation, Dad encouraged me and told me I needed a better story. He then wove an amazingly detailed story about how the cannon I had been firing misfired. Dad elaborated on how I had been thrown clear across the deck by the blast. “But you wouldn’t believe it,” he said, “somehow in all that, my shoes were still right where I had been standing before the cannon exploded, not even singed!” He told me that would befuddle most people and that if the quicker ones figured it out and asked what really happened, I could just reply, “eh, galley accident” and leave it at that. They already had their gripping story so I would not need to elaborate. I don’t know if I ever actually used his story when I returned to college. What I do know is that I felt a lot better about the whole situation and that his story has served as a reminder that my own outlook and story impacts the way that people perceive me.

Lesson Four: When we live in God’s will, He blesses us in unimaginable ways.

Dad found blessings from God everywhere he went. Even in the last decade, when he had struggles to face daily, he saw God’s blessings. When Dad was younger, he had one movie he watched with regularity, only in order to see a beautiful sailboat. He dreamt of sailing on that boat. He, obviously, knew it would never happen and gave up that dream.

Years later, when he was selling the car phones I mentioned earlier, he bumped into a couple. The husband was upset because he had to make an urgent phone call for work, but there were no pay phones. Dad jumped in-as only my father could-and mentioned his car phone. Soon, he and this man are driving around to find a signal. Once they found it, Dad gave the man some privacy in the care to conduct his business.

Phone call completed, emergency averted, the man was full of gratitude. As they drove back to the man’s wife, he asked Dad if he sailed. A few days later, Dad found himself walking onto the very yacht he had watched in that movie as a child. A vessel he had practically forgotten about. Through doing something for someone else, God had blessed him by giving him a dream he had dismissed years earlier. While some people would be quick to write the whole thing off as a coincidence, Dad was instead quick to see God’s hand and to give praise.

I am grateful for these and many other lessons that my father taught me. My father’s world was a place everyone wanted to be. Anything and everything was a possibility. There was only adventure. Everything could be turned into a smile or laugh, especially with the right story. There were no strangers. Everything connects in unexpected and wonderful ways and God reigns, loves, and blesses. My father’s world was a beautiful place despite hardship. I know our own are less bright without my Dad in them, but I hope that we can all carry his lessons out in our own worlds. I hope we can all live with the perfect blend of playfulness and wisdom.

Happy Birthday Dad.
A birthday dinner ten years ago.

 Did you miss the link to the obituary? It's hiding in the text, or you can find it here.

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