Several years ago (and by several, we’re talking back when I had braces, still drove the Ford Ranger, and wasn’t legal to vote yet), I’d asked my father why we never celebrated my adoption anniversary. I’d had a few classmates who were also adoptees, and their families would celebrate both their birthdays and adoption anniversaries. I’m fairly certain that’s the first time in my life I’d offended my father, because his reaction was quite vehement: “Why on earth would I celebrate that day? You were my daughter the day you were born, not the day some judge signed a sheet of paper.”
Dad wasn’t offended by the idea that I wanted to celebrate that date, more by the idea, or any idea, that got anywhere near suggesting I wasn’t his daughter. And for my father, a man who gave the middle finger to infertility and said “I’m going to be a father, no matter what”, it was important to him that my brother and I both knew absolutely that we were his children; that the lack of shared DNA didn’t mean anything to him.
Of course, me pointing out that the lack of DNA gave me a pass at sucking at math (Dad was a CPA, so you can imagine how much that stung) didn’t do much to help my cause.
But not long after my parents’ divorce, my dad came around to the idea of celebrating my adoption anniversary. It might have had something to do with what seemed to be an endless stream of news stories about biological parents fighting for custody of their children years after the adoptions were finalized and actually winning the case. But knowing dad, it had everything to do with the fact that it was something small that I wanted that wasn’t going to cost more than the gift of his time. The celebrations were never huge or over done: the year I was twenty-one, I ran by Sonic and picked us up lunch, and we sat around having one of our well-known debates about one thing or another. Other years, we’d go out to dinner. And other times, sadly, it was dad ordering a second tray for me to eat dinner with him in his hospital room.
But what I learned from my father coming around to the idea of celebrating my adoption anniversary, and what I’ve learned from my father during the thirty-seven years I was blessed to have him in my life is priceless. So today, on the thirty-seventh anniversary of my adoption, the first one I’ll spend with out him I’m asking you, Dear Reader, to please indulge me a little as I recount some of the incredible life lessons my father taught me.
Someone always has it worse: I can hear my younger brother’s groan from here. Because we heard this one constantly growing up. Whether it was something small that upset us, or something large, Dad would remind us as frequently as he could during troubled times that someone always has it worse. And coming from his perspective: growing up very poor on a farm in Kansas, Dad had a point: someone always does have it worse.
The written word is power: I’ve often stated that Shel Silverstein’s poem “Too Many Kids in the Tub” is what turned me into a book-junkie. Which is true. But the pre-cursor to that is the reality that Dad was quite the book-junkie himself, and while he read everything from newspapers to magazines to fiction to non-fiction, he also read to his children and taught them to read from an early age. Those books he read to me, while their stories are still around, that’s not what impacted me: it was the small space of time my father took to spend with his daughter, reading to her. As I got older, Dad would pass on or gift me with books, always with an inscription in the front, which now, after his passing only proves the point: his words of love and what he found for himself in each book is on those pages for me to hold onto for the rest of my life. And as he once pointed out to me, “Amber, you might say something to someone, and over time, the words will change. Written words don’t do that. They’re timeless. And that’s where they hold power over spoken words.”
You have to work for what you want: Again, my brother is probably two miles up the road in his house groaning as he reads this one, not that I blame him, because the older I got, the more I’d roll my eyes when I’d hear this one. But it drove us insane to hear it because it’s true. There are people in this world who are handed everything, starting with their parents and then later on, by batting their eyelashes at some poor guy with more money than sense to get a shiny new bracelet. My brother and I were raised in an affluent household, and where as our needs were met, we didn’t live the high life, and Dad made certain we understood that a strong work ethic is an absolute must in this world. My first car was a hand me down that woke up the entire city when I started it, and I made payments to my dad for it after getting my first job at McDonald’s. And the next vehicle I drove was a Ford Ranger my father and I split payments on: Dad wanted a truck for occasional use, and I needed a vehicle that didn’t sound like WWIII had just began. I was responsible for paying my own car insurance on time, and I was expected to make deposits into a savings account with each paycheck. Dad of course covered our basic necessities, but you never saw me wearing designer clothing unless I found it at a thrift shop. In fact, Dad would give me his credit card, and give me a budget, and very quickly I learned the art (and joy) of seeing how far I could stretch each dollar. This is a habit I still keep today as a mother of my own three children, and you won’t see me breaking it ever. And this leads me to the next lesson my father taught me:
Live below your means: My father achieved a great deal throughout his life: He put himself through college to receive his degree that eventually led to his position as vice president of finance at Fleming Corporation as well as a CPA, two children, and the unheard-of having no mortgage by the time he was 35. He also always purchased every vehicle he ever owned (outside of my truck) outright, and owned a boat by the time he was thirty. He accumulated a great deal of wealth through smart investing and watching his spending. He was frugal and rarely bought anything that didn’t serve a purpose: He’d buy new cars when repairs were more expensive than the car’s worth, he purchased nicer homes but for the purpose of being in better school districts. But one off shoot of this lesson that I learned is that while it is important to live below your means, don’t do so at the expense of not living your life, and occasionally, treat yourself. All the money in the world means nothing if all it’s doing is sitting in your bank account. Even the indulgence of a night out with a friend is worth far more than the actual monetary price tag it carries. Dad never indulged himself out of fear of being poor again. And while I can understand that, I often wished my father would have done more for himself and would have treated himself the way he treated those he helped throughout his life.
You can do anything you put your mind to: This was another one of Dad’s sayings that I heard endlessly. And it’s one I’ve taken to heart: I’ve yet to not achieved what I set out to get whether it’s been becoming an author, having children (and kicking infertility in the balls three times~ woot!!!), landing a job I wanted, starting my own publishing house. And just like my father, I’ve achieved a great deal in my life, but not without busting my ass and paying in blood, sweat, and my own tears. I’ve worked two full-time (retail) jobs to make ends meet, gone on three hours of sleep for weeks at a time, had my heart broken in pursuit of motherhood and been through more medical treatment than most people see in three life times. I’ve earned everything I have achieved, and I’ve done it by following my Dad’s advice: I put my mind to it.
The Gift is in the Giving: Dad was huge on charity and community service, and helping those less fortunate. If you need any proof of that, it is right there, in black and white, printed nicely and notarized, in his final will and testament: There are two heirs to his estate: my brother and myself. There’s more than twice that number of charities listed, along with other community service related items listed in his will as recipients of what he left to the world financially. And it wasn’t just monetary giving that my father believed in: Dad was a Eucharistic Minister (for you non-Catholics out there, this is a member of the Catholic faith with special dispensation to take communion to those who are unable to attend mass to receive it), and he was very proud of his position. He also served with several charitable organizations, namely Love Truck, helping those less fortunate. But Dad wasn’t one to just drop off his deliveries or give Holy Communion, Dad would give the gift of his time to those who were in the hospital or home bound, sitting and talking with them. He raised my brother and I with the very important lesson of “If you can give help, give it.” And this is something I myself practice as often as I’m able: whether it’s a ride from the airport, an offer of help for a friend to get started in the publishing industry, a small boost to help someone get ready for a author’s event, or me taking the time to sit and talk with someone who just needs a sounding board, I do so. I was extremely proud of how much my father gave to one another, whether monetarily or emotionally, and I plan to continue doing the same in his memory throughout my life. And he was right. The feeling of truly having helped someone, with nothing being returned, is amazing. To know you’ve made a positive impact on someone’s life stays with you and can warm your heart on the coldest nights. This might be one of the greatest lessons my father has ever taught me.
“We’re the Jones'”: Dad was a simple guy. And where as Dad did build a significant amount of wealth for himself, he wasn’t impressed by monetary things. He never purchased a luxury car, and we didn’t make the rounds at five star restaurants. On the rare occasion my brother or I would slip and start a sentence with, “But _____ has one!” the response was always the same: “We’re the Jones’. We set the standard for what you want in this life, which is being rich in love, not material possessions.”
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: If ever a person had any right to utter this sentence, it was my father. And it’s a lesson he learned from his mother’s example. My grandfather died when dad was only 11 years old, leaving my grandmother to raise the five children (out of fifteen) that were still living at home, along with two of her grandchildren. And Dad had his share of health issues: Osteoporosis robbed him of the ability to live a normal physical life. By my age, he’d already had a hip replacement, and by the time I was ten, received his second hip replacement surgery. There were countless other illnesses and struggles he faced, but he never gave in. Never once did I see my father falter in his faith that if God brought you to it, God would bring you through it. And when my own health battles began (I was diagnosed with Scoliosis at fourteen, Graves’s Disease at fifteen, PCOS at twenty, Cervical Cancer at age twenty-four and Endometriosis at twenty-five), Dad would remind that if I got through it, I’d only be stronger for it. And he was right. There’s a sense of pride in knowing what my body has been through in terms of my bad health that I’ve looked head-on, kicked it’s ass, and survived.
Blood doesn’t determine family, love does: This is the most important lesson I’ve learned. It’s no secret I and my younger brother are adopted. In fact, I’m fairly loud about the fact. But for my father, the lack of shared DNA meant nothing. I was his daughter just the same as if he’d had that biological link. And from that lesson came my ability to take those who are kind, compassionate kindred spirits and make them part of my chosen family. Its given me the ability to love more fully and openly. And that right there is a priceless gift.
You can’t take it with you: This is a lesson my father never set out to teach, but still I learned. As hard as my father worked, as much as he saved and was frugal with his spending, he never treated himself. He never indulged anything that was just for him: Big purchases always had a purpose other than “just because.” His trip to Italy, while a long dream of his, was something he rationalized it was okay to do because it was related to his faith and he’d see his nephew and nephew’s family. Never in my life have I known a person who sacrificed so much. In his final moments, the money he was afraid to spend was in various bank accounts and stocks and bonds. And it didn’t go with him. And while I can never express how grateful I am he left behind so much for my brother and myself (and I know how very lucky we both are), still, I’d trade it all for him having had given himself the gift of experiences in the world that he longed for but was afraid to indulge himself with.
Don’t let fear hold you back: If you’ve read my short story Maelstrom, you’re aware I focus on the subject of anxiety disorders. And while I might come across as self-confident and self-assured while teaching, on-air, and at author events, the reality is I suffer from what has at times in my life been a debilitating social anxiety disorder. Unless you know me personally or read me frequently, this is not something that’s well known. And I’m able to pull off being put together and perfectly fine while I’m having a massive panic attack because my father told me from a very early age the world is not kind to people like me. He forced me to face my fears to go after what I want. And while some might think the way he went about it was at times excessive, he knew what he was doing: Despite everything, I can force myself into situations that terrify me and cause me great panic, and go after what I want. My first night teaching? Sat in the car chain smoking with my hands shaking until it was time to start class. As badly as I wanted to call the department head and back out of teaching the class, I knew that would only make the panic worse. Instead, I forced myself out of the car, found my class room, and opened my mouth and began lecturing. As bad as the fear was, I still pushed through it, didn’t let it hold me back, and I’ve been blessed with a new career that I love and the gift of meeting new writers and incredible creative minds because of it.
Sometimes, you’re going to have to do what’s best for them, not you: While Dad always put his children first, I truly learned this lesson during the last week of his life. We knew the time was coming, and yet both my brother and I held onto hope that Dad would do what he always did which was pull himself out of it and get better. But as the days of his last week went on and he began to slip away rather than bounce back, still, we held onto hope that some miracle would happen. In the end though, my brother and I were forced to make a decision that broke our hearts: While they could have done some things to help our father, it would have only prolonged his pain. And Dad was ready to go. I wasn’t ready for him to go, but he was ready to go. He’d said his last words to those he loved, he was right with God, he’d seen his son and daughter together and supporting one another. All he wanted was peace and to go home to God and those of his family members who have passed before him. And as badly as it shattered our hearts, my brother and I did what was best for our father, because to have done anything else would have been selfish. It would have been about us not letting go and it would have been cruel to keep him in the amount of pain he had been in. And when the decision was made, for the first time in the last week of his life, our father was at peace and as happiest as I’ve seen him in his life.
I’ll always celebrate September 29. To me, it honors the date I received my father’s last name legally. But this year will be the hardest, because its the first year without him. I’m going to celebrate with an omelet for breakfast (a birthday tradition started on my nineteenth birthday), and remembering the good times, and the years that we’ve celebrated the date before.
I love you Dad. You’re missed terribly by those who were blessed to have had you touch their lives.