My father died on Christmas Eve. I know we all will lose a loved one eventually. And with parents, we know it’s coming. Yet, you’re never quite ready for it. I miss talking to him about politics. I missed calling him after the State of the Union address this week to hear what he thought. I miss getting his emails signed Big D. I will miss going to the gym with him when I visited, together with his two buddies, Jim and Don. They would go to MacDonald’s after the gym, and get senior discount coffees for 50 cents, teasing my Dad about being a cheapskate because he didn’t splurge for Starbucks when I was in town.
Death takes away something you love and leaves you with a reminder of your own mortality. And it’s especially true now, for me, because I’m closest to my father in temperament and life choices. Which is why, as a teenager, we butted heads so often. But I came to see over time that my Dad was his own toughest critic. He was tough on us kids, but toughest on himself. I spoke at his funeral, and said: “I bet my father died with a to-do list, perhaps an idea for his next column, for the next revision of his memoirs that he was writing.”
Every year my father would attend the MLK Day celebration where he lived and in the last several years, was a keynote speaker for the event. This year, my mother went alone. And unbeknownst to her, the event began with a special honoring of my father. As my mother relayed the events to me on the phone, she said sadly, “I don’t think your father knew what an impact he made.”
These last five years were tough on my father. Not physically, but psychologically. He didn’t feel that he had made the impact he wanted to have made. My mother told me he would say to her, “I want to be relevant.” And of course my mother would say, “But you are, Rick.” And he was. He was a social activist, active in local politics, and wrote a political column right up until the year he died. He spent years on Boards and as the President of various non-profits. The outpouring of affection and the accolades that came after his death indicates he made an impact . But he didn’t feel it. He wasn’t satisfied. And my mother and I wondered, if he had seen his own funeral, and the appreciation for who he was and what he had done, would he have felt that sense of relevance? “I’m not so sure,” I said to my mother on the phone, “Would he have been such a successful social activist if he had felt satisfied with his impact?” Maybe it’s that relentless inner critic and unfulfilled drive that made him effective.
This is what I ponder now in his absence. Should he have felt at peace with what he had accomplished, or should he have felt at peace with his restless striving? Do we get to feel satisfied with what we have done? Should we pause and breathe, and consider the impact we are making, the ways we are relevant now, before it’s too late? Or should we, as Robert Browning says (sort of), go beyond our reach, strive higher than we can, so we fulfill our potential, but at the cost of never feeling completely satisfied?