A long-winded story exists about a shark in Thailand. It is the kind of story that made little boys’ eyes pop out of their heads, had they wandered up to this man on the beach to ask why he had a big hole where other people had muffin tops.
Should you ever hear this shark story, it is not true.
Little did I know, growing up, that “the hole” inspired an essential part of my upbringing.
I vaguely remember bringing wood anemones to my father at the hospital. And that jumping all over him when he finally came home was not a great idea. I remember my mother dressing wounds with letter-pad-sized bandages. Not only “the hole” but also on dad’s thigh, from which the doctors had shaved off skin to cover up where a malignant melanoma had been removed. The reason the memories are only vague is because I was four years old – and my father 35.
Children soon get used to what is and, for most of my childhood, I thought I had a normal dad who just didn’t have much tissue on one side of his abdomen. In retrospect, I know that I had a most unusual dad. I had a father who had looked into the place of no return, and, from that vantage point, he didn’t take anything life had to offer for granted. It was all gifts to be thankful for.
These days, we read much about the benefit of gratitude. We also hear people who have been in my father’s situation talk or write about how a bruise with death changed them. This is an account of being a child in a household of remission.
Thinking back with the advantage of more maturity, I think my father felt the need to be explicit about his values, thoughts, and stories because he assumed he would not have time to imprint them “more organically” on his children. When I hear about others passing wisdom, it is usually grandfathers to grandkids – or Hub McCann’s speech in Secondhand Lions. For many, the impetus to speak of big themes rarely gets stronger than the embarrassment over touching these subjects – until we live in the shadow of the Reaper.
Have you had regular childhood dinner table conversations over the importance of trusting? Whenever there was an excuse, dad would lean into the importance of showing people that they were trusted because then they would do their best to be worthy of that trust. My mother called him naïve. That gave us children a clue that more than one take on this important question could exist. In the same household. Dad doubled down; he would rather be disappointed than starting from mistrust. In his experience, people responded to our expectations – for better or for worse. Can you even imagine a kid who willfully would want to prove him wrong? Never once did he need to speak to us about our trustworthiness. I learned that I could choose trust. It is not just a noun for a gut feeling but also an action verb.
Have you ever been encouraged by your father to make mistakes? “Can you play the violin? I don’t know, I never tried” goes an old joke we heard ever so often. Not “No, I never tried” but “I don’t know, I never tried”. The messages in words and deeds were clearly that we shouldn’t be deterred when the outcome of our efforts wasn’t what we wished for; we should try harder next time. Nobody started by being perfect and, to him, the real mistake was in not trying. He passed on the assumption that if we tried, we could probably figure most things out, given some trial-and-error grace.
“Tell me what you were thinking?” Have you ever been met with this genuinely curious question when you had made a complete ass of yourself? Dad seemed to have an assumption that whatever half-brained idea must have rested on some misguided but not malicious foundation. If a person could describe their line of thought, probably a misassumption or some pain needed to be addressed by a responsible adult. Normally, addressing misguided assumptions allowed for teachable moments. And/or trial-and-error grace.
As important: from his perspective, few mistakes were worth getting very upset about. That is not just my inference from his behavior but also his explicitly expressed opinion. We were yet too young to really comprehend how much he had paid to gain that perspective. It was voiced with an understanding why more easily excitable youngsters – aka mostly me – were not yet ready to be as equanimous. He had been very impatient, too, when he was young, he tried to convince us. He could just as well have told us that water ran upwards – unbelievable.
“How are you going to figure that out?” was a regular answer when we asked a question pre-Google. The usual remedy was to bring out the dictionary, the encyclopedia, or the Atlas. Or “I don’t know, let’s look it up!” followed by the same action. And then he asked odd questions, just for the fun of it. “How many grains of sand are in the Sahara?” I am sure you can see the parallel to the question in the previous paragraph – what kind of thinking needs to be employed to get to a reasonable answer? Never The answer; the answer itself wasn’t important. The thinking was important.
Over the years, we heard many stories from dad’s time in Thailand. Apparently, many expatriates were members of the same swim club that had big New Year parties for its members; parties, where people ended up in the pool by mistake and had to maneuver their drive home with one eye, closed not to have too blurry vision. But moralizing about conspicuous alcohol consumption was not his agenda. What had really awed him was that although a hundred highly drunk people from all over the world were gathered in a fairly small spot, nobody ever got into a fight. “I feel so sorry for the people who get aggressive when they are drunk,” dad said, “they must go around the rest of the time with all this pent-up anger inside them that comes out when alcohol takes away their self-control. It must be a terrible way to live.”
Through the years, we learned many other things over the dinner table – and, above all, we learned on a deep emotional level that sitting around the dinner table and having real conversations was a gift.
Back then, we were blissfully unaware that we could not take it for granted.
In the back of my head, I had thought of letting this story hang until the next time Father’s Day rolled around. But then I had a long and inspiring discussion with Kimberly Davis for her Masterclass program, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should share this homework assignment sooner rather than later:
- Choose trust, assume good intent
- Offer grace
- Say “I don’t know” when you don’t know
- Think, just for the fun of it
- Strangers are friends you don’t know yet; get to know them
- Don’t hang on to your anger; talk to someone or write a journal
- Put regular family meals on your agenda
- Listen to your children and they may listen to you
Sorry, not so much about sharks.