Goodbye Dad (Part three)
More fully joining the human race
Before I had kids, I wasn't particularly sympathetic toward parents with young children. If I heard parents complaining about how tired or frustrated they were, my first reaction was to think, "So why did you even have kids?" or "with all of the problems in the world, is a crying baby really that big of a deal?" As a general rule, I found small kids to be irritating and even mildly frightening. I did not seek out opportunities to play with them or hold them. Changing diapers was an activity that I was not looking to experience. And if a small child was bawling his or her head off at a restaurant or something, I would wonder why that kid's parents were not doing us all the courtesy of getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible.
Then my wife and I eventually had two kids, and my perspective began to change rather quickly. Now, I no longer get annoyed by crying kids at restaurants or by children making all kinds of noise playing. In fact, I often don't even notice the noise. When I see parents in a public place struggling with noisy kids, I generally feel sympathy rather than annoyance. I also feel much more comfortable talking, playing, and just generally hanging out with little kids. (Not that I am looking to become a kindergarten teacher any time soon.) Most of the time, they even seem to like me. But while I became fairly skilled at one time in the art of changing diapers, I am not looking for any opportunities to relieve those experiences again. I am happy, however, to join in with other parents in telling an assortment of poop or vomit related stories involving our kids.
I hate to say it, but my reactions to people who lost loved ones had always bore some resemblance to my former feelings about struggling parents. I was not so heartless as to be annoyed with people expressing pain about lost loved ones. But I did not feel a deep emotional connection to people who had experienced death so personally. On an intellectual level, I could understand that this would be difficult. I could try to imagine what it would be like to lose a sibling, spouse, child, or parent. But the loss was still theoretical, and the strongest feeling I had when confronted with people sharing about the death of loved ones was the desire to run away. I just didn't know what to say, and I was embarrassed by my lack of compassion.
A part of me would also want to tell people to pull themselves together. Yes, it is sad to lose loved ones, but death is a basic fact of life. Plus, I thought that people living in this country should better appreciate the good things in their lives. So many people throughout history and in the world today have experienced tragedies far worse than an average American losing a friend or family member. If I were to ever lose a parent, for instance, I would mostly feel a great sense of appreciation. I am a middle-class American who, largely because of my parents, does not have to worry about meeting his basic needs. I also had a chance to have good relationships with both of my parents, relationships that lasted for decades. My parents did not die tragically from some accident or disease when I was a child. If one of my parents were to die, what right would I have to feel a profound sense of sadness or complain about anything?
I can say now, about three weeks after my father's death, that experience is profoundly different from theory. In spite of my efforts to hold it back, I have cried like a baby more than once, usually in front of other people. In fact, the tears mainly seem to come out when I am with other friends and family who are also crying. And I have found that friends and family, particularly those who have lost loved ones, have been far more compassionate and understanding than I would have been in their shoes just a short time ago. Many of them have clearly been uncomfortable and have not known what to say, but it doesn't really matter. Just being there is the most important thing. And while this has not been a fun experience, I have had many moments over the past few weeks where I felt a stronger emotional connection to people than I maybe ever have.
We humans are strange creatures. To some degree, we need to experience something before we really get it, and it often takes tragedies to help us feel connected to other human beings and to realize what matters in life. God knows how many sayings, songs, poems, plays, and novels have been written to remind us to live in the moment and to make the most of the joys in life - and most importantly, the people - while we still have them. For the past few weeks, I have had many moments where I felt - not just understood - this simple truth. Here's hoping that it lasts. And here's hoping that future sad events will also help to make me more fully human.