Life brings challenges but how we respond makes the difference

As I type this, my dad is resting fitfully in his rocking chair, lulled into semi-sleep by the white noise of his oxygen tank. 

It is hard to see him like this – the man who was larger than life to me, reduced to the minutia of naptime and sugar levels. He is dying. His mind is sharp, but his 93-year-old body is wearing out and the warranty, long expired.

Dad was always a hard worker. Growing up, I remember how he’d work three, sometimes four jobs at a time to keep food on the table and us kids in parochial school. 

He wasn’t a Kodak executive, the career choice of most of our friends and neighbors. He used his hands, as an electrician, carpenter, handyman, greenskeeper and finally, golf course superintendent. All that exercise and fresh air certainly helped keep him young, and he loved being outdoors in all kinds of weather.  

As he got older, he and my stepmom would fly with the other snowbirds to a Florida sanctuary to escape the upstate winters. With a touch of envy, we’d read postcards about their orange trees and orchids, and whenever they called, Dad could barely stifle his gloating.

I don’t know if there’s another trip to Florida for Dad. Most of his days are spent resting. His wife, my wonderful stepmom, should have been canonized right alongside Mother Teresa because she has the patience of a saint. Mom takes care of everything — medicines, supplies, doctors’ visits, meals, laundry, housekeeping — and still manages to send birthday cards out to the kids.  

Heck, I don’t even do that, and they’re MY kids.  She has her own health concerns, but she refuses to slow down when it comes to caring for my father. She’s wired that way, she says, and I know what she means.  

It’s sometimes easier to just keep plugging along than to stop, because if you stopped, you’d have to think. And if you’d think, you’d fall apart. And you can’t do that, because if you did, you may never, ever stop.

When I teach yoga, I remind students that they honor the body that brought them to class. The essential “you” is your spirit, your heart. It’s the ‘you’ that existed before conception and the one that will continue to exist after your body stops functioning.  

Bodies are simply the crispy outer coatings that provide the transportation for your spirit, I tell them. Who you are, the REAL you, is so much more than a body or shape or size. Easy to say, but when you’re watching your Daddy make that transition, it’s hard to grasp.

When I was a young adult, I was going through a particularly difficult spell. I made some colossally bad decisions and felt like an incompetent loser, incapable of functioning as an adult. In a rare moment of humility, I asked Dad for advice. He suggested that I try with just one small thing. “Pick one thing, and concentrate on that. When you accomplish that, try another small thing. Pretty soon, you build confidence. You’ll go from strength to strength.”

I took his advice. And it worked. Slowly, I made my way out of the abyss and into the light. In many ways, my life began that day. I’m so grateful I listened. And I’m so grateful he shared.

Sprezzatura is a cool Italian word for grace under pressure; nonchalance; accomplishing something difficult with apparent ease. Think famous athletes who make the tough play and then saunter away as if to say, “Oh, that? I do that all the time.”   

That’s how my Dad is approaching his death. With grace, sprezzatura. He knows what’s coming, and he’s OK with it. I asked him recently what he thought heaven might be like. 

He paused for a moment, then replied, “Heaven?  I’m living it.” 

That’s grace. That’s how it’s done. And for those of us who remain, we will go on, from strength to strength. Happy trails, Dad.