My Dad Is Gone This Father's Day: Why I'm Fine

My dad was a fearless optimist, a man a clever writer might have referred to as "consciously naïve." He believed in the intrinsic goodness of mankind and always viewed life through a prism of hope, no matter how dire the circumstances. His sense of humor was fully intact even in the face of his own suffering; my mother used to jokingly refer to him as "Harry the pusher," because if there was anyone who wanted the people around him to enjoy life more, I have yet to meet him. Like Dicken's Fezziwig, my dad thought every day could be a party, and his enthusiasm was both infectious and healing. My dad always made me feel safe, no matter what. Even when we battled through differences of opinion (and we did this often enough), with him I always felt accepted. With my dad I was known, I was seen, I was highly regarded. And I would be surprised if there is any person who knew him who feels any differently.

After my dad had a stroke, many words were lost to him. He was the family peacemaker and counselor, so this was a blow to all of us. His pithy wisdom, the infrequency with which he got worked up over ANYTHING, his ability to use humor to diffuse tension... I don't know if any of these things would come in handy with your family, but with mine they sure do. So as we were adjusting to "the new normal," there was a lot of anxiety, I think, about having to cooperate as caregivers to the man who had always taken care of all of us. Needless anxiety, it turned out, as my dad was able to use his very limited vocabulary to develop his new catch phrase: "It's fine." Or its companion, "You're fine." Okay, so I'll admit, there was a time when I didn't quite understand the wisdom of these twin expressions, which became dad's go-to for nearly every situation laid at his feet. Mainly because I think most of us have co-opted "fine" as a pejorative term, equal to acceptable-but-mediocre. But that is not what dad was telling us, not in the least.

If I describe something as "fine art," you will know this is the real deal, very high end and impeccable. If I tell you that your outfit looks fine, however, you will want to instantly go and change it. We don't regard things being "fine" as a very good state of affairs, generally speaking. But consider the alternative... if someone asks you how you are and you can easily say "fine"? I'd say life is going your way, frankly. To be "fine" most of the time is a lucky, happy life. Most especially on those days when things don't appear too lucky or happy if you can still say "I am fine"? You have discovered the secret to life. That is what dad was telling us. You are fine, you're going to be fine, things are going to be fine. A mantra for tough days if ever there was one. Another expression my dad cobbled together after he lost agility with language was "Every day is a good day". This he could not say as clearly, and perhaps that is what made is so impactful. He lost so much to the stroke, but he could still tell us, able-bodied whiners that we were, that every day is a good one. And it was fine that we were able-bodied whiners at that.

I inherited from my father his corny sense of humor. We loved to laugh and movies were a great bonding experience; I remember him getting breathless with giggles watching The Pink Panther films and I personally adore the summertime camp classic Meatballs. A funny moment from that film is Morty ("Hi, Mickey!") trying to calm a belligerent child about taking a ride on a dilapidated bus by describing it as "A fine, old bus." To which the child replies, "It is NOT a fine, old bus. It is a PIECE of JUNK!" Ha, my sister and I love that one! And it is a perfect illustration of a head game we play with ourselves every day. We shout down the reassurances that we are fine with vitriol equal to that child's. We don't want to hear that we are good enough, that our effort is good enough...we want to impress upon anyone who will listen that we are "a PIECE of JUNK!" Do you want to know another definition of fine? Free from impurity. "You are fine," my dad would tell us, over and over again. You are fine. You don't need to be fixed, you don't need to prove anything. You are free from impurity, you are yourself and you are fine just the way you are.

When my dad was dying, I used to lie next to him watching him sleep. Each breath struck me as a precious gift, and I cherished every rise and fall of his chest. One day he awoke and caught me in my vigil. I looked at him with all the seriousness of a young person who has never known true tragedy and asked "Do you know how much I love you?" Without batting an eyelash, my father smiled and said "Yes", before closing his eyes and drifting back off to sleep. He knew then what I had not yet figured out--we are all dying. It is happening to each and every one of us. And that is fine. Every day we die to yesterday's self, and are reborn with more wisdom, more depth, and more truth. We die to who we used to be and are reborn to who we are now. We have the gift of looking backward to understand we are fine, and life is good when you take it as a whole. My dad is gone now, but I am fine. And I am grateful to him for teaching me this.