“A father is neither an anchor to hold us back, nor a sail to take us there, but a guiding light whose love shows us the way.” ~Unknown
I couldn’t understand his grateful mindset, especially given his obvious rapid decline. My dad was dying. None of us could reconcile a life without our mentor, hero, spouse, brother, uncle, friend, and champion of cheesy dinner table games.
But it was coming, and we all knew it. Still, he’d tell us he’s “counting his blessings, not his struggles.” This from a man with a failing liver and ammonia on his brain.
When that fateful morning arrived, my mom and I were in direct alignment with him. We’d stayed by his bedside all night, watching for any changes to his breathing. It seemed to settle—at least, the rattle was gone. Soon, we were also unable to breathe as we watched him slip away to his next chapter.
He didn’t really look like himself, but he looked peaceful. I felt an immediate panic that I’d left unanswered questions on the table. About his past. About my grandparents that I never knew. About how to maneuver through an uncertain future… Do we lock in for the longer-term mortgage rate? Do we renovate the house now, never or in a few years? Do we pull our kid out of school for an epic family adventure?
Dad would know these things.
Despite my aching heart, I’ve realized over the last few months that my dad left us with a legacy of Golden Rules. These will pop into my head randomly, but sometimes I wonder… It seems whenever I long for his wisdom, I hear his voice whispering:
“Count your blessings, not your struggles.”
Easier said than done, right? But we can all find something to be cheerful about. My dad weathered deep pain in his last month of life. His leg cramps were the worst! It was torture to see him suffer, but more torturous to witness his declining cognitive function.
Because my dad was a capable, super-human of a man. He built companies from nothing, organized events to support our city, and could relate to anyone he ever met. To watch him struggle with his phone, and to hear his slurred, slowed-down speech, killed me. And yet… Even ten days before his last day on earth, he continued to believe he was lucky.
“If it weren’t for my liver disease, I wouldn’t have all these check-ins by my grandkids!”
“If it weren’t for the ammonia on my brain, I wouldn’t have had all this extra time with you, Sammy.” (I’d taken a leave of absence from my serving job to be more available.)
His courageous outlook inspires me to do better. Instead of lamenting my long list of grievances, I can choose to focus on the good in my life. I’m healthy. My kids still think I’m cool. My husband supports my new business gig. I’ve let my gray grow in and have been told it’s not “that cringy.” I believe in myself. I have a lot to be grateful for.
“You can’t teach a lamb to bark.”
For years, I tried to mold my youngest daughter into the person I thought would be her best self. I fought her incessant quest to be online, even though she had some prodigious knack for beating all the levels in her games. I pushed playdates on her, because they seemed “age-appropriate” and a “better use” of her time when all she wanted was to be alone.
I’d lecture her on speaking up; I’d answer for her whenever adults put her on the spot; I’d correct her sometimes quirky behaviour; I’d badger her for not opening up to me.
The list goes on.
One day, for reasons related to my nephew and not my daughter, my dad politely informed the family that “you can’t teach a lamb to bark.” It took us a beat, but then it sunk in.
My kid is an introvert. She should not be shamed into behaving more gregariously. My kid likes gaming, and she’s good at it. Why should I take that away from her if we have some healthy boundaries in place? She doesn’t want to be forced into social situations just because other kids her age want that. My kid is a lamb. I should not expect her to bark.
“Sit on an emotional email for a day or two.”
This rule saved my bacon countless times over my sixteen-year career in finance. In the heat of some frustrating situation—often defied by any sense of logic—I’d craft seething emails to send to our head office. In my rookie years, I sent some of them and regretted the fallout immediately.
Having an emotional response to disappointing news is a natural reaction; it’s part of our humanity to feel. But he would always say, “Sammy, imagine your email is printed on the front page of the Globe & Mail [our national newspaper]. Make sure you’ve digested everything first and given yourself the space to think critically.”
His technique led to dozens of phone calls rather than heat-infused emails whose tone could potentially be misinterpreted. Or I’d sit on them and just never hit send, later realizing, my knee-jerk reaction would have set off a chain of even more difficult situations I’d rather avoid.
Then there were those that I would send. I’m proud of them… because I was able to express myself from a place of patience, time, and space. Our initial reaction to things does not always end up as the final say.
“No amount of past trauma can hold you back if you can forgive and find purpose.”
As a young boy, my dad was molested by a close family member for years. He repressed this abuse, until one day, the world he built to hide his unconscious pain crashed down on all of us.
The details are difficult to relive. He was accused of some terrible things. He lost his high-powered position in finance. He’d been living a double life, fighting a sex addiction that had manifested out of his childhood trauma. Something none of us, including him, knew anything about. I was eighteen at the time. I thought for sure my mom would leave him. I remember thinking we would lose the house, and that there could be no way through this.
When his hidden truth rose to the surface, he began to dig into his past and we watched him fight to keep the family together; rebuilding, restoring, and recovering. In his quest to prove himself worthy, he took on a new purpose. He was not going to let his past define him. He was going to forgive. And he was going to help other male survivors of sexual abuse.
It was hard for us to watch him speak so candidly about his addiction and past. But the more open he was in his speaking engagements, the more courage he passed onto others who’d been suffering in silence. To witness my father rise above and advocate so passionately has taught me the greatest life lesson around: we have more power than we realize.
If we don’t like the chapter we’ve written, we can start a new one. We can make productive choices to use our pain in the service of others. We do not need to stay victimized.
“Just say the truth.”
If I had a dollar for every time I pulled my dad’s sleeve and asked, “What should I say to this person, Dad?” I’d have a lot of extra dollars! It used to annoy the Bejesus out of me, because his blunt reply seemed to come without any actual consideration.
One day early in my career, I was in “a slump.” I hadn’t managed to secure any prospect meetings in weeks and was feeling lousy about myself. Desperation exuded out my pores. I did have one appointment coming in, though; he was a friend of a friend. But I thought for sure he’d already have his financial ducks in a row. He was a doctor, after all.
About an hour before the meeting, the sweat stains began to show through my tailored navy blazer. What could little old me possibly do to help this guy? I was certain our mutual friend had called in a favor to get him to meet with me.
“Dad, what do I even say to him?”
“Just say the truth.”
“That I’m a rookie and nervous to meet him?”
“Not helpful, Dad.”
As it turned out, I went with his whole “say the truth” guidance, which seemed to immediately disarm this nice man. And as that turned out, he gave me a chance to review the plans he had in place. I wound up saving him money and replacing his unreliable ‘parachute’ with a more airtight solution.
My relationship with this client eventually morphed into a specialization in looking after physicians’ insurance needs. He told me it was my down-to-earth nature and zero “know-it-all” attitude that led him to trust me.
Since then, I come back to this favorite line of Dad’s anytime I begin to concoct an excuse for backing out of plans. It’s easier to say it like it is: “I bit off more than I can chew; can we reschedule?”
“You can’t steal second without leaving first.”
That was my dad’s shortened version of the Frederick B. Wilcox quote, “Progress always involves risk; you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.” Dad loved a good baseball analogy!
I’ve applied this to my life countless times when mulling over whether to take a chance. I used it when I was twenty-four, after being dumped by my fiancé just months before our wedding. Ended up dragging my sad ass to the city we were going to start our lives in, without having secured a job. I told myself I was young and had nothing to lose. That I’d figure it out. And I did.
I used it when my husband and I opted for expensive fertility treatments. We knew it was a crapshoot, but we wanted another child. On the other hand, the money we had set aside made us feel secure. Thank God we took that chance. Our little Saffron was born nine months and two weeks later.
The highest stakes use of this mantra came when I began to dread going into work several years ago. I felt like a hamster on the treadmill, always under pressure and in hot pursuit of a carrot I could never reach. If it wasn’t my insomnia, the leaking left eye and chronic stomach aches were enough to tell me something needed to change.
I’d had dreams for the future, but no real battleplan. I knew, however, if I sold my business, I’d have a little runway to try my hand at reinventing myself. Still, I clung tightly to security. I was the main breadwinner and couldn’t be so foolish.
I ended up walking away, deciding life was too short to hate my Monday through Friday for another fifteen, twenty years. Others had managed to reinvent themselves. Surely, I could, too.
That chapter in the Book of Sam is still unfolding, and I don’t consider my reinvention reckless. I consider it vital to my life force. If I’d kept my foot on first base, I’d still be there… looking off in the distance at second… wondering if I could make it. That wondering would haunt me. I’d rather know I tried than skip it altogether.
“Don’t wait until funerals to tell people they’re special.”
More than a decade ago, a friend of ours lost his battle with cancer. He was a legend in the business and a close pal of my dad’s. He lived in another city, and though we’d meet for focus groups once a year, we regretted not having the chance to tell him how special he was.
When Randy died, Dad took immediate action. He invited some clients over for a dinner at his and my mom’s home, motivated to seize the day. At first, I thought it was bizarre he’d bought these wigs and weird hats at some costume store, insisting we all don something ridiculous while we ate our meal.
But when that client was killed in a plane crash a few months later, I finally got the message. We cannot wait to let someone know they matter.
On December 2nd, 2019, I walked into a so-called ‘networking’ event thinking, “Just a few more of these and then this career and I are done!” Instead, it was a surprise retirement party,” hosted by my dad, in honor of me.
I was floored. Instead of thinking about himself and the impact my leaving would have on his succession plan, my dad got busy concocting a farewell party. He flew in my sister from out west. Colleagues from down east. Clients were there. He managed to assemble every special person in my life, and I spent the evening listening to people tell me that I mattered.
It was like a reverse funeral. Let’s call it, the death of my career… cheered on by those I loved and had helped in my years as a financial advisor. I could cry thinking about the effort he put into this special evening.
If my dad were alive right now, I think he’d be proud to know these lessons have sunk in. But just like you, I’m a work in progress. I’ll be needing his guidance as I continue to walk my new path. So, to all the dads that have shown up for their children, thank you. Not everyone has had this blessing in their life.
About Samantha Plavins
Sam Plavins is a Gen-x mom, wife, adventurer, writer, and recovering over-sharer. In 2019, she hiked 800-km across Northern Spain and had the epiphany that her career in finance was killing her. So she decided to walk a new path, launching She Walks the Walk to help women like her lead more authentic, inspired lives. She wants you off society’s treadmill, or at the very least to question it! Find her at shewalksthewalk.com, Instagram, YouTube, or her travel blog, and check out her podcast here.