9 lessons I learned after my Dad died 5 months ago.
In his theory of the “adjacent possible” Stuart Kauffman describes the importance of iteration, recombining, and continuing explorations despite conflicting signals and noise. When author Steven Johnson included Kauffman’s concept in his book Where Good Ideas Come From he described the adjacent possible as a “shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” Since my Father became unexpectedly ill and died two months later at the end of March, everything after feels like an Elon Musk endorsed simulation of “real life”. My Dad’s absence remains both unbelievably real while also seeming like a parallel existence. I am left to love him by honoring what he taught me, living out my life adjacent to his inherent, legacy goodness and wisdom. So I reinvent, hovering there with him finding my way toward what’s best and most possible, with him beside me — still.
9 Lessons —
- You will not break from this experience. Instead, your already hardened pieces are softened up to fit better together. They form new beams, arches, and foundations for the pinked, new horizon you must uncover. Looking out where the door hangs on one hinge, you will use the sharp pieces to keep it open until enough light tips you over.
- We do what we do. When we are at our best, we are humble and brave. My Dad didn’t just look out for other people; he checked on them like he was inspecting their eggs for unseen cracks when they went through his checkout line. If he saw something broken, he would quietly provide twelve new ways to overcome whatever obstacle required clearing. My Dad did this in such a breezy style, making the person feel taken care of without shame for needing care. He looked out for the big picture by steering the details.
- Police your area. It shows respect for your surroundings. Go even further by going first. Make the world a better place than how you found it, inspiring others to do the same. To my Dad, this meant cleaning up at a campsite when we were ready to pack up and leave. He learned this discipline in the army and, while he did bring military precision to the exercise, he made it an adventure too. He also expected we look out beyond an insular tight horizon, and at times cleaning up for others when they were too worn down to do it themselves.
- Kind and loving gestures create kind and loving people. When I was five, we moved from Georgia to Florida, mainly due to my bronchitis requiring a warmer climate. The life-size plastic doll someone had given me while I was in the hospital was “injured” in the road trip south. My Dad took time from unpacking and moving in a family of 5, including three children under the age of 6 to weld my doll’s leg back on at the kitchen table. I am sure it was number 937 on his list of essential moving-in tasks, but it made me feel loved.
- Fair isn’t life. While I still don’t enjoy hearing this one, it’s real and the sooner we all accept it, the better we are. It was my Dad’s favorite axiom and one he primarily utilized during my teenage years. I finally appreciate the economy of this tenet. Its simplicity makes it impossible to challenge while it also encompasses both the pathos of loss and the potential for redemption.
- Work to live, don’t live to work OR love to work and work to love. My Dad and I don’t agree on this one discreetly. He referred to himself as a “work to live guy” the entire 30+ years he taught high school science. He thought I worked too much and identified too much with and through my work. I have come to see his point, but also aspire to have work that I enjoy so much it doesn’t feel like work. Isn’t that what we all want? I love working, and I know he did too. Once he retired, he built a house, wrote and published two books and, taught Sunday school weekly. All good work requires love. So, don’t work to live or live to work- rather, love to work and work to love.
- Believe in optimistic and hopeful ideas bigger than yourself. My Dad believed in big, creative, and deeply held beliefs and principles. He was articulate and provocative when discussing his point of view, but also remained a curious conversationalist who enjoyed deeply listening to an alternative perspective. He had many friends with opposing political views, but he refused to let it simmer and unravel their otherwise mutual attachment.
- Apply a Benjamin Button approach to curiosity. As my Dad grew older, he was the most curious person, at all times, in every room, about everything. Consequently, he was the best listener, conversationalist, interviewer, and speaker. Children adored him. He made friends everywhere he went. Rather than my Dad’s intellectual inquisitiveness waning as he aged, it increased. Why? He was interested in the unknown and pursued knowledge about the unfamiliar indiscriminately. He didn’t maintain a growth mindset; he grew a lively mindset.
- Going to Whole Foods will seem impossible, for a while. Seeing all of the seemingly healthy, cancer-free people roaming the aisles searching for the unbruised Asian pear, locating a special chili powder seems so petty, inconsequential and exactly why people from other states sometimes eye-roll over California. Someone you love died from cancer, and people are focusing on obscure recipes and ingredients for their soup, the latest take on avocado toast or Insta-pot concoction. They are living and thriving. For you, living should include one more person for it to make sense, for you to rejoin the healthy and somewhat resented Amazon Prime member pathway to grocery land. This is part of your adjacent possible, reclaiming your place among the health loving, thriving and happy. You are not there yet, but you see your shadow self and recognize life…..more or less.