Viewing My Father With New Eyes

One Saturday morning I woke my 98-year old Dad, asking that he rush his morning routine a bit, explaining that I had somewhere to be and wanted him to join me. I didn't think he should be alone, and needed his cooperation if I was to make my appointment.

Today was the day I was finally going to act on a long neglected promise to learn to meditate... to quiet my mental chatter... to temper the distractions of life's never ending to-do lists. Today, I was attending a class, hoping to find a good teacher.

Since Mom passed four years ago, Dad has been spending winters with me in Kailua, escaping the snow, ice and inevitable isolation of that season in our family home in Western Pennsylvania. While we will always miss Mom who was the hub of our family, getting to know Dad more fully has been an unexpected gift of her exit.

Easy going as ever, Dad acquiesced to my morning plea with a speedy breakfast and quick exit. We soon arrived in Chinatown, located the address and ascended the steep stairs to the second floor. As I had hoped, we were early and I was able to scout out a bench against the wall for Dad's use while the class was in session.

The large, double-hung windows were propped open inviting in a welcomed breeze and along with it, the sound of the street below. I walked to the front of the room to introduce myself to the teacher and ask permission to have my father observe the class, explaining that he would not be participating.

Turning to gesture an introduction, I was surprised to find Dad seated not on the bench at the side of the room but in the center-most chair, directly in front of the easel, seemingly ready for class to begin. I smiled, reflecting upon Dad's way of being at home anywhere. The instructor assured me that Dad's choice of seats was no problem as he unfolded another and added it the circle.

Soon the chairs around Dad were filled with wanna-be-meditators, and finally, following the teacher's instructions, I closed my eyes, and focused my attention on my breathing as I launched into my first 10-minute meditation.

Just one minute in, celebratory sounds of drums, noisemakers and cheering rose from the street through the open windows. The Chinese New Year's celebration, complete with a lion dance, was in full swing down below and winding its way through my head, winning the battle for my focus. Nine minutes left - an eternity under these conditions.

When the meditation bell rang, I opened my eyes, defeated. I was not alone. A chorus of sighs and moans rose from the group over utter failure at the task. Taking turns, we shared our experiences. Not surprisingly, each of us had focused on a cacophony of uninvited thoughts about the parade outside, things left undone at home, how we appeared to others in the room and whether we were "doing it right." However, there was one student who stood out that day: Dad.

The instructor asked, "Tom, were you able to focus on your breath?" Dad said, "Yes, isn't that what you told us to do?" "Well, yes," said our teacher, "but that's easier said than done, as you can hear from comments made by the others in the class. Tom, have you always been like this, able to calm your mind so easily?"

I don't think Dad knew what to make of the question, but he shrugged his shoulders and offered these thoughts, "Well, you see, the way I figure it, what's past is past and there's nothing I can do about it now. And at my age, there isn't any guarantee of a tomorrow - so no use worrying about that either. I just try to wake up every day and be thankful for the life I've had and appreciate what I've got now. I just try to be a good person... That's all."

The room fell noticeably silent and settled into a calm for the first time that morning.

As we left the class, Dad asked me, "Marina, what was the point of that class?" I responded, "To learn to empty our minds of thoughts, the way you were able to. To do what you already know how to do."

He looked at me in bemused disbelief. Then he said, "So how much does something like that cost?" I said, "$275 dollars!"

I can't tell you what he said next, but it makes me laugh every time I think of it. In that moment, I became keenly aware of how lucky I am to have this near century-old, first generation Croatian-American-coal-miner-Zen-master living with me. Now, I view him with new eyes and see the teacher I was looking for.