When I was in college, crumbling beneath the stress of a looming test or project, my dad would often say to me: “Remember, you have all the resources you need.”
He was in St. Lucia, where he lives, I an ocean away in Bethlehem, where I was studying journalism at Lehigh University. But somehow, those words, dispatched across the phone line with such security, always calmed and reassured me. At the time, I applied them only to my studies, quelling my anxieties with his reminder that my own aptitude, coupled with adequate preparation, would always serve me well. It wasn’t until later in life that his positive reinforcement took on a more expansive meaning.
My dad never repeated those words once I graduated, but I carried them with me, calling on their wisdom whenever I floundered in the face of a challenge or nerve-wracking situation. To me, they became an invocation for the fortitude I believe he had been referring to all along. Whether it was a job interview or some other professional opportunity, a personal crisis or test of faith, he knew I had what it took to triumph, even if the outcome wasn’t always what I expected.
That is why it is especially heartbreaking, recalling how confidently he has championed so many of my endeavors, to see how ineffective my own encouragement has been as he’s confronted his own challenges these last few years. Admittedly, they have been severe. Since my parents separated, my dad seems to have stranded himself, albeit unintentionally, under a cloud of suffering.
His health has failed him on several occasions, making him something of a miracle considering all that his body has endured. He has survived a heart attack, a car accident that almost paralyzed him from the neck down and a battle with esophageal cancer, in which he had to be fitted with a new esophagus in a risky and rare procedure, given the frailty of his body at the time. His many hospitalizations have been long, lonely and arduous, as he has sought treatment in Cuba, where many St. Lucians go for major health procedures, given the proximity and reputable quality of care — and where it was difficult for my brother and me to visit and costly for any of his siblings to be by his side for long.
Several years later, his recovery has been fraught with complications. Having always been an active man, who moved through life with a brisk and charismatic charm, he has struggled to remain positive under his body’s constant defeat. When he lost his job almost three years ago, that added blow, considering how much he’d defined himself by his career in aviation, sent him spiraling into a depression that has made it difficult for him to grasp even a sliver of hope.
He has pursued several job opportunities since then, only to have their promise evaporate at the last minute. And so approaching 62, my father, who could still pass for 50 despite the ways in which his body has been ravaged, lives a glum and burdened existence.
For years, his situation weighed upon me, too. I cried over it, raged over it, twisted myself into myriad contortions of cheer in the hopes of offering some kind of raft that would steer him to a brighter horizon. I even felt guilty at times for my own happiness, swallowing it in his presence for fear that it would only blister a raw and open wound.
But eventually, I saw that agonizing over his circumstances was doing neither of us any good. I was making myself miserable over something I couldn’t change, and while he appreciated the inspirational words my brother and I regularly cast his way, nothing we said could elevate him enough to reach beyond his pain.
My father appears to be stuck where he is. Though he professes to have placed his trust and hope in God, I wonder if God is calling him to something he isn’t willing to see. With so much that was dear to him compromised or swept away, I think of the blank slate he faces, the invitation to start life anew, by first tending to the internal landscape that has been a minefield of sorrow, longing and regret since well before his first brush with death.
I have no real idea what it’s like to be in his shoes. While I have had my share of heartbreak and suffering, I know I have never held the hurt he has, never been so relentlessly thwarted in the building of dreams, the pursuit of joy. But I do believe that my dad, just like he told me so many years ago, has all the resources he needs.
I believe there is a strength and tenacity, a brilliance and courage, a creativity and wisdom just straining to see him through. He may have to do some hard work to allow them free reign, may even have to confront some things he’d rather stay buried.
But I refuse to concede that this is all there is for him, that after escaping death three times, his life must now be confined to such bleak constraints.
And this is where I have found my peace. It isn’t easy to be a helpless witness to the struggles of those closest to us, to love them as they thrash in the dark, lumber down a path paved by poor choices or stubborn insistence. Somewhere along the way, we can become entangled in what is theirs, forgetting who we are and what we want for our lives.
Instead, we can choose to stand in our own power and the place that feels truest to us, loving them still and perhaps, more importantly, accepting them where they are without relinquishing our vision of their being healthy, happy and whole.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times