“Promise Yourself To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind…” (The Optimist’s Creed)
A few weeks ago my Dad had to make the difficult decision to admit my stepmom Sylvia to a memory care facility. He and Sylvia’s daughter had cared for her for as long as they possibly could, but realized that they were no longer able to give her the care she needed. As I talked with him on the phone, checking in to see how he was doing, he said something interesting, but not surprising. He said, “This has been one of the hardest times of my life, but each day I can decide to be happy, regardless of the circumstances.”
This really struck me because my dad has been through a few really difficult situations, and for him to group this current experience in with those other experiences told me everything I needed to know. My dad is what you might call a practiced optimist…in fact, he was a member of The Optimist’s Club for many years. My earliest memory of this inner strength came when I was a teenager. When I was young, my dad owned a tire and auto repair shop in the little desert town where we lived. It was a family business. My mom was the bookkeeper and I got to help her after school and during the summers. The business was a lot of work for my dad, but his efforts were starting to pay off as the business grew and he added new products and services.
One warm summer day, when they were both working at the store and we kids were at home, my mom called us. Not unusual since she checked in with us pretty regularly. But this time was different. The first thing she said was: “Your dad and I are OK. But I want you to know that there has been an accident here at the store. I’ll tell you about it when I get home.” I went outside and looked in their direction and could see a plume of black smoke rising into the air. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I waited for my mom to get home to fill us in. It turned out that one of my dad’s employees was playing around, welding a paper cup on top of an empty oil drum, and it exploded, killing him and severely burning another employee. As you can imagine, my dad was devastated, first and foremost because of the death and injury of his employees, but also because in the aftermath, my dad lost his business and our family was bankrupted. I remember my dad being understandably depressed after this event, but with my mom’s help, a reconnection to his faith, and the Optimist’s Creed firmly in his mind, my dad made a choice: he chose to believe that things would get better. So he got an entry-level job at a local factory, and slowly worked his way up until he was in management.
I think back on that now and I’m really floored by this. To have everything you’ve worked for in your career stripped away, to carry the burden of the death of an employee (though he wasn’t found at fault), to be financially ruined, to have to start at the bottom again. I don’t think many people would have the strength of character that my dad (and my mom) had to navigate this with such grace and optimism, becoming even more involved in their community rather than isolating themselves. I think I’ve taken this for granted, assuming anyone would do the same.
Don’t we all do this though, take our parents’ stories for granted, for good or bad? We assume that what they’ve experienced is what other people experience and how they respond to those experiences is how other people would respond. And it’s only as we get older and see other people’s stories that we realize how unique our own parents’ stories are. We start seeing our parents as people instead of just as our parents.
The accident at the tire store and its aftermath was a really difficult time for my dad, and now he’s going through another really difficult time. And yet he faces each day with that same grace and with optimism, looking for the lesson or the blessing, cherishing his time on this earth. He isn’t bitter. He doesn’t quit. He doesn’t hide away. In fact, he works really hard to continue to be a blessing to his community, making rocking chairs for children with disabilities, organizing an essay contest, and volunteering in his church.
As he said recently, “you’re going to be disturbed in this life, but you have to find a way to retain your peace of mind.” I can only hope I have the strength of character to meet the challenges that lay ahead with the same grace and the same optimism.
My dad is a really good person. I’m lucky to be his daughter.