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Treasured Life Lessons From My Father, Who Died When I Was 5

My mom was recently in town for a visit, and my dad, who passed away tragically 34 years ago, came up in conversation.

As always, my mom’s face lit up as she spoke of him and included a hilarious quote of something my dad once said. When her story was finished, I noticed tears in her eyes. “You know, I still miss him,” she said.

I thought about how difficult it must have been to have loved my dad for 16 years, then to one day find herself without the love of her life. I recalled how she spent the following years after his death doing her best to keep the pieces of our family together. With that, my eyes welled up with tears too.

He passed away at the age of 40, leaving my mom a widow at the young age of 33. She was a working, single mother. She was left alone to care for me, an exuberant 5-year-old, and my 12-year-old sister who was struggling with the devastation of losing the most important man in her life.

While I don’t remember very much of our time together, I do recognize the significant impact my dad has made on my life. I am fortunate to have inherited my dad’s two strongest qualities: ingenuity and persistence. His legendary sense of humor is something that has found its way into my world through too. My dad’s kindhearted wisdom was represented in the proverbial quotes handed down by his grandfather, something which he enjoyed sharing with anyone who wanted to listen. His belief in the strength of family and community was evident in everything he did.

As more than three decades have come and gone since his passing, my dad’s influence has not been diluted by time.

1. Nothing is impossible when you are motivated.

With nothing more than a basic elementary school education and the ambitions of an entrepreneur, my dad was regarded as highly intelligent by anyone who knew him. He was a deep-thinking philosopher with ideas which were decades ahead of his time. He was a self-motivated businessman with a gift for words.

He was a fascinating man who, at any given moment, was crafting at least five big ideas in his mind. He wholeheartedly believed that big financial opportunities were always just one innovation away. In his perspective, the more ideas he explored the better his chances for success.

He recognized that every person had talent and that the key to success was as simple as motivation and encouragement. He knew that nothing is impossible when you are motivated.

2. If you are not laughing, you are not living.

When it came to my dad, laughter awoke at sunrise, and it rarely stopped to catch its breath until the day was done. It was a powerfully versatile tool which allowed him to attract, deflect and captivate any audience. As my mom also reminds me, laughter was also how he was able to win over her heart.

A charming sense of humor, coupled with a talent for business, was what made my dad a superior salesman. He effortlessly drew in customers with his outrageously funny sales pitches, always keeping his customers coming back for more. His favorite sales pitch was, “¡Vengan a comprar naranjas! ¡Son buenas para anticoncepción!” (Come buy oranges! They make great contraception!) He would hold the orange in his hand and explain that it would taste so satisfying that sex was no longer necessary. Thus, excellent contraception.

My mom still remembers how dad would wake up, look in the mirror and say, “Ay dios mio! Porque me hiciste tan bello? Porque no me hiciste rico en vez de guapo?” (God, why did you have to make me so good looking? Why couldn’t you have made me rich instead?) Even while entertaining his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, my dad was proof that laughter always made life more exciting.

Thanks to these memories of my dad and countless others, I recognize that laughter is powerful. It brings people together, makes life more interesting. Laughter has no limit. Laughing is living.

3. Tragedy leads to adaptation. It’s not all bad.

The interesting thing about tragedy is that it’s only difficult until we learn to adapt to our new situation. After that, it’s no longer a devastating topic; it’s just reality. Tragedy can change who we are, sometimes for the better providing opportunities for us to become stronger, wiser and more capable people.

I was about 6 years old when I first taught myself to cook. Determined to make beautiful, one-of-a-kind dresses for my Barbie dolls I cut up my old clothes and taught myself to hand-stitch fabric by the time I was 7. By 8 I had taken over most of the “man of the house” duties, independently learning to work a lawnmower and make basic home repairs. When I was 9 I could jerry-rig almost anything around the house, and by 10 I was self-taught in basic electrical repair. It only took electrocuting myself once to realize that it was a bad idea to strip a live wire with my teeth. By high school, I knew my way around a toolbox and had my own personal prized collection of power tools.

Today I am a college educated mother who knows her way around a kitchen and can also use a lawnmower. I take pride in being self-taught. Losing my father at a very young age has shown me that being a parent is the single most important job I will ever have.  With tragedy comes harsh reality. What we don’t always recognize though, is that there is also a beautiful truth concealed within it. We experience. We grow. We adapt. The hidden truth about tragedy is that it doesn’t have to all be bad.

4. Life is short. Make memories.

I have spent the last 25 years on a quest for photographs of my dad. I have been fortunate to have found more than 50 photos to date. When I first began my photo quest, my goal was to compile an amazing album filled with pictures of me with my dad. After meticulously searching through hundreds of albums and thousands of photographs, my father/daughter keepsake photo collection can instead be summed up as one single photograph, where my dad and I casually stood in our front yard, both dressed in our “around the house” clothes. After searching through every single family album, I have only ever come upon this one single photo of myself with my dad.

Earlier this year figuring that my son might someday appreciate a collection of our family photos, I decided to put together a collection of photos of myself with my son. As I searched through hundreds and hundreds of photos on my digital camera roll, I noticed that my son’s entire first seven years of life with me were summed up in just a small handful of digital photographs.

I wondered how I could have overlooked something so important to my son’s future? I found myself starting to line up a number of excuses like I was always working, I didn’t always have time to be “camera ready,” there was no one to take photos of us, I rarely had time to put on makeup, etc. I realized I had wasted the first seven years of my son’s life avoiding the camera, valuing a need for “perfect” pictures above my son’s need for family memories.

I was disappointed but I saw an opportunity to take the “one single photo” lesson that my dad had bestowed upon me as an inspiration to do more for his grandson. Thanks to my dad, I began to commit a serious effort to building a family “trail of breadcrumbs” for my son. I have recently begun to build a collection of family experiences, family recipes and family photos. From now on, there will be a collection of mother/son messy-haired photos, silly-faced photos, pajama photos, dinner photos and “just because” photos. I will take more pictures alongside my son, no matter how messy I look because life is short, and I know my dad would have wanted it that way.

5. I am human. I am not invincible.

The most difficult memory I have of my dad was his devastating car accident in Mexico several months before his passing. My dad lost control of his truck and I flew through the passenger window. I  wandered along the dusty rural road until I was discovered by a passing car. After the accident, my mom received a call that my dad had gone missing. Two mysterious days following his disappearance, my dad found his way back to my grandparents’ house, made a long-distance phone call to my mom and explained that he had gained consciousness in a morgue.

It wasn’t long after kissing death on the lips, that my dad was back to laughing and storytelling with his humorous account of “that time when he woke up in the morgue.” Serious about humor, lighthearted about death, my dad joked, “hierba mala nunca muere,” (bad weeds never die).

My dad possessed a phenomenal ability to make people happy, but he lacked the ability to focus on himself and his own needs. He was stubborn and spent his last few years silently battling a demon he refused to acknowledge. Unwilling to burden his family, my dad continually deflected the very serious topic of his health with humor and avoidance.

Despite every frantic family effort, my dad’s illness continually progressed. Our family had no choice but to watch him struggle in solitude. As indicated by his yellow eyes and yellow skin, it was painfully obvious that my dad would not overcome his demon.

The most important lesson I ever learned from my dad was the one which he never chose to accept,  I am human. I make mistakes. I realize I have a choice to learn from them.

As a certified officiant and a self-proclaimed motivational speaker, I believe that my dad would have sincerely appreciated this opportunity to share his wisdom, as seen through the eyes of his youngest daughter.

Photo credit: Comstock