We’ve arrived at the final post in the “lemons vs. turds” series about handling difficult challenges in our lives. I promised you something powerful that you could put into action today, and I’ll get to that soon. First, I want to tell you a story.
My father died last December, but in his last few days, he gave me a valuable gift. This is the story of that gift.
My father was a very proud and private man. Frankly, I didn’t feel especially close to him for most of my life. Had he suddenly died early last year, I might not have shed a tear or felt much of a loss. In an odd twist of life, my father didn’t die suddenly; I’ve shed multiple tears and felt the loss that results from his death.
Treatment was harder than my father expected. He was very used to things going his way and to being able to force change. Cancer, chemo, and radiation don’t really care what you’re used to.
I walked into my father’s hospital room one morning to find him in a terrible mood. He didn’t say hello, and he wasn’t happy I was there. He asked me to call one of my brothers to tell him not to visit. I made the call, but wish I hadn’t. The moment I closed my cell phone, I was told to leave.
“No. I’m going to stay for a bit,” I said.
‘No’ is not a word my father liked. A string of curses and anger directed at me spilled from him. I let him rage.
Him yelling was nothing new, although it hadn’t been directed at me in years. The things he said weren’t true. Part of me wanted to scream, “This is not how you treat someone who’s helping you! What’s wrong with you?” But another part of me realized that what was really going on was that he was scared and didn’t want anyone to see him this sick.
I walked to his bed, calmly put down the rail guard, took the hand that was pushing me away, and wrapped him in my arms. I explained that I was staying regardless of how much he told me to go, that I didn’t care that he couldn’t make it to the bathroom or that there was crap in his bed, that I knew he was scared and felt awful, and that I loved him regardless of all of that and always would. I held him until he stopped fighting (which wasn’t long because he was really weak), kissed him on top of the head, and then set about getting him cleaned up and comfortable. Within an hour, he was a lot more comfortable and a lot less grumpy. I talked to all of his doctors and went with him when he had tests ran. He held my hand for support a few times and checked to make sure I was right there when tests were being performed. At the end of the day, he asked me to come back in the morning.
The next day the doctor came in and went over the results. My father didn’t understand what the results or the follow-up tests meant, but I did. Sometimes being a doctor isn’t fun.
Later that day, my father was talking to me about what he was going to do when he got out of the hospital and was done with treatment. I did my best to smile and let him talk about things that would never happen. There was no way to know how fast he’d go, but it was obvious that the end was in sight.
And then out of the blue, he apologized for being a bad dad. It was barely audible, but he told me he was proud of me. In 42 years I don’t think I’d ever heard him apologize for anything, and he’d certainly never said words of praise to me.
We spent the rest of every visit from then on out talking about things he’d never even mentioned before. He talked about his childhood, his hopes and fears, and he talked about his regrets. He also told stories about good times. He asked me about my life and really listened to my answers. We laughed and cried together, we talked about what it was like to be so sick, and we got to know each other in a very different way.
I did my best to encourage him to have similar conversations with the rest of the family, but he struggled with it and only got a little of it out with another brother. “I’ll get to it later,” he said each time I asked him.
My father died less than a week after the above. Nearly 300 people came to the visitation and told us stories about their experiences with him. It quickly became clear that although he wasn’t always great with his family, he was a good guy (maybe even really good) to the rest of the world. And he was a prankster. My brothers and I never realized we got it from him. We picked up many things from him without realizing it.
In the months after his death, I’ve thought a lot about my father and the conversations we had during his last week alive. What made those talks possible when they’d been absent for a lifetime?
My father’s dad died when he was three, and his mom died when he was 20. His step-father was an alcoholic, and my father hated him so much that my brothers and I didn’t even know he was still alive when we were kids. My guess is that my father never knew what it was to feel loved unconditionally. I’m not saying that he wasn’t loved unconditionally. I’m saying he never knew he was or felt it. He constantly worried about how other people saw him, and he never really felt like he was good enough. He saw his faults much more than his strengths.
Because my brothers and I (and even my mom) were his, he felt that way about us too. He’d tell other people good things about us if we weren’t there to hear it, but otherwise, we were often criticized and never praised by him.
The morning in the hospital when I refused to leave and told him I loved him no matter what…that morning changed everything between him and me. It wasn’t me that made the difference, though. I’ve hugged him and told him I love him hundreds if not thousands of times. So have other people. What changed was that he chose to believe it that day. Once he believed it, he let himself be loved, give love, be vulnerable, share dreams, get and give forgiveness, seek help, and be himself without guard around me. The moment someone else was in the room, it all disappeared. But when it was just the two of us, I got to know my dad.
I can’t help but think what a different life my family would have had if only he’d been able to look at himself through loving eyes sooner. What would have happened if he’d learned to practice forgiveness and to realize that he was good enough? What would have happened if he could have loved us because we were his and he’d learned how to love himself instead of feeling like we would never be good enough because he felt he wasn’t? What if he could have seen faults and helped find solutions instead of feeling that faults had to be denied, hidden, or ridiculed lest you risk abandonment? My father did a lot in his life (he bought a farm, raised six kids, was married 58 years, etc., etc.), but how much sweeter would his life and our lives have been if only he could have enjoyed it instead of feeling like he didn’t deserve it and that it could all be yanked away at any second?
Those questions are the gift my dad gave me right before he died. They’ve changed my life and added value.
That brings me back to my promise to you of an action you can take today that holds the power to positively change your life. I want you to stand in front of a full-length mirror, look at yourself from head to toe, and then look yourself in the eyes and say, “I love you and know you’re worthy of a really good life.”
Snicker, fidget, giggle…whatever it takes to find the courage to do it, but go try it right now and then come back. Seriously, go! And say the words out loud.
Was it harder than you thought? Did some part of you want to look away, call you a liar, point out a flaw, feel restless to uncomfortable, or try to hide? Or maybe you asked yourself, “If that’s true, then why is my life like this?” Some of you never left your seat.
Maybe you’ve always wanted the approval of a parent and never got it. But my father’s parents had been dead for 73 and 56 years the day my father got the approval he wanted. Your and my worth comes from inside, not outside. It’s you who needs to love you. You who needs to believe you’re worthy of a good life. Regardless of how good or how bad your life has been, regardless of what anyone else thinks of you or says about you, what you think of yourself is far more powerful and a much greater indicator of how you will live, love, and learn in this world. Like it or not, how you feel about yourself will also affect everyone you interact with.
Tell yourself every day. If there’s resistance, concentrate on something that is good about you and try again. You didn’t learn to walk in one day, what makes you think that you’ll be able to love yourself that quickly? If there isn’t resistance, saying it will help reinforce your better points and remind you to live up to the life you deserve.
You’ll learn to identify the “turds and lemons” in your life more quickly. People trying to push your buttons won’t get reactions and you’ll experience less drama. Friendships will deepen. Family dynamics will change. You’ll treat yourself better and other people will start treating you better too. You’ll find that you really do have the strength to get through challenging things because you’ll be able to recognize and appreciate the good things in your life.
Not bad for something as small as a perspective change, eh? I realize it isn’t easy, but each of you is capable. If my dad could do it at the age of 76, you can do it now.