Thirty years ago, my father called me into his room on his birthday when he always used to remind us that Beethoven was born on his birthday. I ran to his bed quickly to wish him a happy 60th birthday, and to distract him from his pain. He died soon after. He would have been 90 today had cancer not killed him.
I knew that day that his words and examples of love were precious gifts. I remembered them and put them on bookshelves in my mind as if they were pretty rocks to look at now and then. Over 25 years after his death, something happened that opened my eyes and heart. Suddenly I saw that they were not merely pretty rocks; he had given me rubies and gems with infinite value. He had shown me the power of love no cancer or army can defeat.
I could have told you an inspiring story or two or three from those days, when I decided to help my mother and father, after he became bed-ridden with cancer growing in his bones from his skull to his toes. However until recently, I never saw the whole story – the victory of love over pain and the highest goal a human can accomplish: choosing love and life, no matter what. “Susan,” he said, “It doesn’t matter how close death is, my job is not to choose to die, but to reach out to love and life.” And, he did. I never understood how much until I grew up enough to be able to see what he taught me.
One day, an event and the ensuing struggle brought me to a new place from where I could see better. I could see my father in a new light. Instead of telling you about one person who visited whom he helped, I suddenly saw a pattern I had never seen before. Every person who entered his room, most of whom were fighting back tears and trying to bolster their courage to cheer him up, received gifts that cheered them. I escorted tense, teary eyed people to his room, then escorted the same people back to the front door while they were laughing, smiling or relaxed and content. In three months, there was no exception, even at 7:00 am, after my father’s usual sleepless night full of pain. I had never seen the whole story because I had to grow to a place where I could see it.
My father chose to have just the minimal amount of morphine to take the edge of his pain, in order to be alert and able to live life as fully as possible. He told me many times (and I never understood what he was telling me) how grateful he was for his pain because it continually reminded him of the present, and to be the person he had always wanted to be right now. “Susan,” he offered, “I don’t know [what will happen]. All I know is that love and life continue, and I must keep reaching out to love and life.” When I could see the whole story, I saw a man racked with pain who never said one word of complaint, one word of self pity or one negative comment. From a starved body that looked like a victim of a concentration camp, my father told me a story I didn’t understand for over twenty-five years.
What precious stories are we throwing away when we judge the teller or the culture and language of origin? Every person’s story, every culture (a specific collection of stories) offers us gifts, opportunities of learning and growth. Not understanding or valuing a story is a reminder to keep growing, and keep revisiting stories we don’t understand.