I am my father’s only son. A couple of days ago, I said my goodbyes and now we wait for him to take his final breath. He has been mostly unresponsive for several days now, but when I arrived at his hospital bedside, he lifted his head, looked at me, and smiled. I had a couple of minutes where I could talk privately to him and he would respond by shaking his head yes and no. This was a highly emotional conversation for me, so I simply could not speak for long. However, I ended by telling him that I love him, and he replied, “You too.” We had other moments with others in the room. One that has stayed in my mind constantly was him slowly trying to get his hand from underneath his blanket. I helped to remove it, and he grabbed my wrist and then held my hand for a few minutes. These are moments that I will cherish and remember always.
As my mind is filled with thoughts of my dad in these days, I started to consider life lessons that I learned from him. I’d like to make note of them – quite honestly – for my own benefit primarily, but if others can gain some perspective or guidance from them as well, then so be it.
1) Make what you will of your life through hard work.
My father was the hardest working person I’ve ever experienced. Sun up until way past sun down found him working, sweating, dirty, and worn out. For more than 20 years, my dad was a repairman for GE (General Electric). He would do service calls to repair appliances, TVs, stereos, etc. There was nothing that he couldn’t fix – and I do mean nothing. When he was a child, he built a TV on his own. Before he was a teenager, he took apart an entire car’s engine and put it back together again just to see if he could. He could. Eventually he left GE and opened his own appliance and TV sales and repair shop in our small town. It was amazing that he made enough to survive as he was constantly going to someone’s house to repair something and then not charging them for his efforts. I think he liked smiles and thank yous much more than money.
One day, someone asked him if he knew how to install and repair air conditioning. He said that he did…he lied. He knew nothing about it, but within a couple of days, he had it figured out. For most of my childhood, he owned a HVAC company that proved to be very fruitful for him. From the time that I was 9, I worked alongside my dad during summers, winters, weekends, and lots of week nights. I became a pretty good installer, but never was much of a repairman. I just remember that 15-16 hours days were routine during those years. He earned every penny he ever made.
For many years, I averaged well over 100 hours per week in my work. I don’t believe that it is healthy to do this, and I believe that you miss the whole reason for your working so hard – to enjoy life. Hard work is good, but so is time spent relaxing and enjoying relationships with those you care about.
2) If there’s a job worth doing, it’s worth doing perfectly.
It took a very special person to be able to work with my dad for extended periods of time. He has always been a perfectionist. One story that comes to mind is that my dad drew up the plans for our local church to add a new educational space. Aside from pouring the foundation and framing the walls and roof, my dad did almost all of the work because all of the other who were volunteering their time walked off the site because he was so demanding on the quality of work being done. He wasn’t much for teaching or training others in how to do things, he would just give you this look that made you feel like an idiot if you couldn’t figure it out and know his expectations. I experienced that look quite often. But when the projects were over, and you inspected the work that had been done, you would find zero flaws in his work. He was amazing in this regard.
As I started my own career after college, I apparently picked up some of these characteristics from my dad. I often had people walk off of projects because of my demanding need for perfection. I found myself going back and redoing things that others had already done without them knowing. Although I have softened some today and appreciate the efforts and vision of others, I still believe firmly that one should always do the very best job possible the first time. In doing so, you can take satisfaction in a job well done.
3) There is equal value in every race.
My father was a well respected leader in the community. He held many offices from School Board President, Booster Club President, City Council, etc. I remember that everywhere we went, regardless of neighborhood, people loved to spend time with my dad. It could easily be seen and heard…the level of respect they had for him. He knew everyone…called them all by name. When running for office, he would have shuttles available for those who didn’t have rides to the polling places or for those who had trouble getting out of their homes. He would often volunteer time and services for those throughout the community, never once asking for anything in return. I see now that my dad was ahead of the times in his embrace of diversity.
For me, I grew up in a very diverse school, playing sports with very diverse teams. Of course, we always had fights and disagreements, but they were never around racial issues. When I got into junior high and high school, I had switched to a private school where there was very little diversity. It was awkward to me to be in such a “white” place. I appreciate the example that my dad set for me.
4) Sometimes what needs to be done requires enormous personal sacrifice.
In my senior year of high school, I was working with my dad. He was walking through a new home and drawing a diagram of how the A/C ductwork would be installed. He tripped, fell, and broke his hip. I had to pick him up and carry him out to his truck and drive him to the emergency room. This one instant changed my dad’s life forever. He had hip replacement surgery. The doctors instructed him that he would not be able to climb ladders, crawl, or lift more than 50 pounds. Those are at the very core of what you do when installing HVAC. The doctor was basically telling him that his career was over…but that wasn’t an option in my dad’s mind. He continued his line of work for many more years, and in doing so, his hip came out of socket. He worked for years with that hip out of socket – walked, climbed, crawled, lifted enormous amounts of weight. My dad was in agony for years, but continued to go because he felt like it’s what he needed to do. It eventually led to more surgeries and him being disabled. Altogether, he has had over 20 hip replacements now and having his femur replaced.
Why? Why would he do this? My dad loved what he did, but more than that, he saw this as the best way for him to provide for his family. I didn’t recognize the sacrifice he was making at the time. I would just shake my head and I thought he was crazy. There’s no doubt in my mind that my dad is the toughest and strongest man I’ve ever met. I have so many stories of his toughness and perseverance. I now also see the element of love behind it all. I’m amazed at what he did and how he did it.
5) Family matters. Affection matters. Words matter.
In my previous points, I have spoken of things that my dad did that made an impression on me. However, on this point, what my dad didn’t do made an impression. My dad was not an affectionate man to his kids. I was an adult before I remember him saying that he loved me. My parents divorced when I was 9, and then he secretly remarried without my sisters and I knowing. When this occurred, we rarely saw my dad at family events or gatherings. He would, however, come watch me play football or basketball. He never missed a game. But when his kids were grown, and we became parents ourselves, my dad rarely saw or spent time with his grandkids. He is a man of very few words. Conversations are difficult with him because he just doesn’t have much to say.
In these recent years, I believe he regrets those decisions. My daughter has longed for a relationship with him. As I walked through his home a couple of days ago, I saw pictures of my daughter all over the house. He cared. He regretted his decisions. He just never knew how to go about fixing it and then time ran out.
As someone who grew up with a dad like that, I have been the opposite with my daughter. I hug her, kiss her, and tell her how much I love her all of the time. I spend as much time with her as possible so she knows how much I value our relationship. I’m involved in her life at a deep level, and we have a great relationship.
My dad was not a perfect man, but he has always been an impressive man. His kindness to others. His work ethic. His disarming smile. His talents and abilities. These are the things that have impacted my life the most. When he takes that final breath, the world will have lost a very unique and impressive man. I see him and hear him in so many things that I say and do these days. I used to think that would be the worst thing in the world, but now…it’s something that I long for.
Thank you Dad for all you’ve done for me and taught me. I love you.