Karl & Bennett Karl
With this post, I am beginning a series of reflections on fatherhood (and, in most cases, parenthood in general) based on the example of my father, Karl, who is currently battling terminal cancer. My father has been a greater blessing to me than I will ever be able to put into words. My hope in these reflections is to both explore the true magnitude and miracle of the child/parent relationship and to extend the wealth of a life well lived to others. At a more personal level, as a son who has been given an amazingly rich inheritance, I wish to honor my father.
The last three and a half months have been a strange mix of sorrow, joy, fulfillment, emptiness, loss and gain of identity, looking back and looking forward, etc. If I were to choose one word, however, to describe this period, it would have to be blessed. I have learned much about being blessed from my dad, Karl. Certainly, the relationship that I have with him of father and son embodies, in many ways, the purpose of the role of fatherhood (and sonhood as well, although this will get less focus). Although my dad never sat me down as a middle schooler for an awkward talk on being blessed, blessedness is a choice he has modeled throughout the time I have been privileged to observe and learn from him.
In more normal circumstances, our family situation of having welcomed in child number two just two short months ago would put the period of my reflection at two to two and a half months, rather than the three and a half I mentioned above. However, normal circumstances have seemed to elude us recently. Probably even more accurately, we are dealing with a normal reality that we all like to wish was not normal.
On the afternoon of June 24, I received a call from my mother that started with “I’m afraid I have some bad news.” Never a promising start to a conversation. The conversation proceeded to go where a son whose hero has always been his dad never thinks it can go. Dad had experienced some balance issues and mild confusion for several days and it had gotten to the point where they decided to take him to the emergency room. A C.T. scan showed a large tumor in his brain. Without over-dramatizing, I’ll say that my whole world, and even my identity as a son, was instantly shaken.
My dad is an amazingly healthy 67-year-old. He is very active, health conscious and disciplined. He has always looked a solid 10 years younger than his age. Most people who know him will agree that he should probably live to about 120 years old, give or take. The length of our lives, however, is not ours to determine.
As I reflect on my relationship with dad in the coming months, you may note a balancing of my perspective in regards to health and the things that foster it (all of us at Cheeky Bums are passionate about this issue, and that certainly has not changed; for me, it is actually all the more enforced). Dad’s health has given him a quality of life that many never enjoy and has positioned him as favorably as possible to deal with a terminal cancer. Healthy decisions, however, just like a robust emergency savings plan, should never be our source of security or hope. There are plenty of things beyond our control and there is no such thing as health or balance without a reconciliation with this truth.
In future posts more of the story of my family’s journey from June 24 forward will come out as I reflect on my dad and myself as father and son. Dad underwent an extensive brain surgery on July 11. The tumor, although visibly removed, is of a very aggressive sort that recurs and is an incurable form of cancer. Dad has recovered from surgery quite amazingly and is tolerating treatment quite well, for which we are all extremely grateful. We are more aware than ever that what we know we have is today; tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Given this backdrop for our son, Bennett Karl’s arrival on August 7, you can imagine the joy and hope he has brought us. Bennett means blessed. Gretchen and I place a lot of importance in names and struggled greatly in this pregnancy to find the name that was just right. Eight days before his birth, we both independently felt that Bennett was the name. Blessed has been a theme for me since dad’s diagnosis. The day after finding out about the tumor, my dad and I had a conversation with each other in which we both shared how greatly blessed we feel. I so strongly associate the word blessed with my dad,that I sometimes subconsciously think of Bennett as Karl Karl, rather than Bennett Karl.
In every setting that I can recall my dad sharing in since the diagnosis, he has focused on how blessed of a man he is. This isn’t contrived. His genuine experience of his life has been one of being blessed. The prospect of death does not change this for him. If anything, it seems to magnify it even more. My dad has passed on many amazing gifts to me, which I will reflect on in coming posts, but the greatest and most precious that I am aware of is the choice and the experience of being blessed (which is inherently tied to his faith).
Life subjects all of us to a great variety of circumstances. While it certainly is true that some experience a greater number of difficult circumstances than others, there is also much to be said of the commonality of human experience. A balanced perspective also realizes that emotional responses and mental interpretations, which are both internal functions, are not necessarily correlative with the perceived degree of a circumstance. One person may be just as paralyzed by getting cut from 7th grade basketball as another is by getting injured before their only Olympic games. We see displayed in humans the ability to be grateful in extremely difficult circumstances and the ability to be bitter in seemingly ideal circumstances. This tells us that what is internal is much more powerful than what is external.
While it is absolutely true that some of us are born with bents that are more predisposed towards a particular reaction, the fact of the matter is that we all have the ability make the choice to view our lives as blessed rather than cursed. This is a hugely important thing to teach and to model to our children so that they never become willing victims of either external circumstances or a predisposed bent. In our will, we are endowed with power over both of these barriers through the act of choice.
My dad has always been very content and I have admired his steadiness throughout my life. This can certainly be attributed in part to his personality, but the past three and a half months clearly demonstrate that for my dad, being blessed is not a passive experience, but an active choice. I believe that dad would be unable to choose blessedness in such a difficult circumstance if he had not made a practice of choosing it daily in the smaller things.
One of the great lies that we too frequently live by is that we need to feel our attitude and approach to life rather than choose it. We feel dishonest saying that we are blessed when we feel otherwise, as if our feelings are the more accurate of the two. In fact, our experience of life will follow the lead of our choices, if we will take the lead in this manner. For many of us, it will be much easier to choose a cursed life instead of a blessed life, because it seems to be our autopilot default. By not choosing to actively change this outlook, we are, in fact, making a choice.
With the craziness of adjusting to life with two kiddos amidst the backdrop of the weight of the situation with my dad, I’ve realized that I have not always been as diligent as I need to be in choosing to recognize the blessed nature of my life. I greatly desire to walk in the pattern of my father in this regard so that our kids will grow up understanding what it is to be blessed. At its deepest level, being blessed goes far beyond circumstances. A true view of blessedness understands the very nature of our existence as inherently blessed. Psychologically, this is a truly healthy (in the fullest sense of the word) understanding of life. It is also increasingly elusive in our culture.
Are you blessed? Are your kids blessed?