Lessons at Sunset

I write this after seeing my dear father off on his final journey. Born in 1921, he lived a glorious life and passed away peacefully. From my father, we learned early lessons about quietly shouldering enormous responsibility with utmost integrity, eschewing all fanfare. My father was a humble, contented, jovial man who valued honesty, simplicity and laughter. His family was the center of his life. He was affectionate and caring, proud of my every small accomplishment, and always made me feel I could do no wrong. He was the best father any little girl could have wished for.

Farewell, dear Dad. I write this for you…

Soon after Apollo 8 took first pictures of our beautiful Earth — the pale blue dot — Carl Sagan said: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”

What makes “us”? Well, quite literally, our parents — the man and woman who made and delivered us into the world. From there, we shape up into who we are… maybe by nurture, maybe per our nature, or maybe according to some admixture of these and other factors. That initial cauldron of magic brew where we simmer and shape during the most formative years of our life is the Family.

A family is not a scripted movie. It is raw and unpredictable, subject to inexplicable stresses and celebrations: an abstract entity with its own thumbprint that makes it utterly unique. In my mind, the Family is the fundamental building block of our human race. Maybe within this block are finer subatomic actors with their own quirks and forces, but overall it defines the protected space from which every member of the family emerges forth to interact with the rest of humanity, and escapes into, seeking refuge when necessary. The most sacred force that the family unit must engender is safety.

For more than seventy years, my father made a ceremony of locking our garden gate and the main doors of our home every night, with a strange combination of locks and bars. It was an unspoken declaration that we were within the safe space of our home, protected from any outside elements that might cause us harm. As a grown woman, I sometimes had friendly debates with my father about the innate weakness of the old doors that he locked so carefully or the short height of the garden gate over which any young person could vault with ease; yet, in my heart of hearts I always felt safe and secure within my parents’ home. It was our family, in our safe space, where we could shed our masks, and retire for the night without fear. True, over the years, there were many conflicts between family members, heated arguments, and even some tears and recriminations, but there was never any doubt that the temporary discord was to resolve something for our own good… our safety and our wellbeing. Most importantly, there was never any fear that our family might fall apart.

Many oceans separated us after I moved away to America in 1975 with my own budding family, in search of better opportunities. We came to the new land with nothing but stars in our eyes, and I can humbly declare that my growing family faced even greater stresses, trials and tribulations than I had ever known, as we adjusted to everything that was new and strange. But the one old value that held us together and kept us safe was the notion that the Family was an unbreakable entity. Whatever the struggles, they must be resolved, but no outside force would be permitted to breach the unit that made us our own family. This was an unspoken agreement, intrinsic in the vows of marriage. Today, we in turn, are slowly evolving into multiple family units — still fresh and fragile, but held together by bonds of love; each family its own unique thumbprint, its own safe space, eager and willing to spread its sweet wings into new territories. It is a thing of joy to behold.

Truth be told, I do worry. Not just for my family, but for the institution itself. We live in different times. Instant gratification is more appealing these days than patient vigil for outcomes. Marriage is like a long journey in a boat, fraught with dangers of sudden storms at sea, but also filled with joyous days and nights of beautiful peace and amazing beauty. The most enduring aspect of marriage is synergy and mutual respect, from which real affection and understanding will slowly blossom, long after youthful fancies fade. Nurturing a family is a very long and time consuming process, akin to a seed that must first survive, then grow, and finally bear flowers and fruits: slow by nature, demanding of patient vigilance, and requiring two active partners. But when it does reach the right stage, it is not one or two lone flowers that affirm the prolonged dedication — but an overabundance of fragrant blossoms. Nature rewards in ways that defy the imagination.

Partners in a marriage totally define this journey, and they often make huge personal sacrifices. One partner trying to destroy the other, as in divorce, will sink the boat and all its occupants into a sea of despair. Innocent children pay the highest price, for they must choose between parents: a devastating blow from which it is almost impossible to recover whole. It is rare to find a person who is not negatively impacted in some way by a broken family. The ruins from divorce are immeasurable; so, while it is the only recourse in some extreme cases, it is not to be taken lightly as an instant solution.

I catch my breath. Maybe my dear father worried about us too. After all, our times were surely different from the times of our parents. But my father gave us the greatest gift — he gave his silent love and blessing, and let us live as we chose, to build our own safe haven for our family. And now I must do the same, taking comfort in the truth that the values nurtured early in our families will continue to endure … for that was his legacy.

Throngs of people, whose lives my father had touched with his kind thoughtfulness, grieved together at the moment of his farewell. My dear father took nothing with him but the fragrance of a life lived well, accumulated slowly over a lifetime of relationships and events. We, his survivors, remember nothing but the sweet love, quiet joy and the cool peace of happy days spent together.

Moments of bereavement bring strange, sharp clarity. Ultimately, neither overflowing bank accounts nor beautiful mansions will mourn the departed. How crucial it is to stay together, through rough times and calm days! How immensely important to invest fully into our families, using the treasures of love, joy and peace that are ours for the taking — entirely free and always available!

In the final analysis, nothing else really matters…

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