My father passed away eight years ago. Today would have been his 64th birthday.
When he died, family and friends told me that the grief would subside with time, that time would dull the pain. The grief has never subsided, and, if anything, the pain has only grown stronger each year. The world feels less bright, less wonderful, less good without him.
He left us at a time when our family was struggling. We were struggling financially, struggling emotionally as we tried to adjust to living in a city after living isolated in a small town, and we were all deeply unhappy. It hurt him to leave at a time when we were all struggling, knowing he wouldn’t be with us when we needed him the most.
I wish he could see us now. It would have made him so happy to see what joy we’ve found in our lives: to see my sister studying medicine and biophysics, to see my brother return safely from serving in Afghanistan, to see my little brother doing local comedy shows, to see me on the cover of TIME magazine while expecting what would have been his first grandchild.
The sense of loss is overwhelming. There is no way to recover from the death of someone you love.
My father was a flawed man, but he was a genuinely good man - good in that pure, innocent, unfailing way we usually only find in books or movies. He wanted, more than anything, to do good in the world, to always do the right thing. It’s the reason, I think, that he became a preacher.
He was the most compassionate human being I have ever known. We lived in stark poverty when I was growing up, and yet he always found a way to give a meal or some money to strangers who were in need. If we were ever out at a store or restaurant and he saw someone who was crying, or sad, or lonely, or hurting, he would sit down with them and talk to them just so that they would have someone who they could talk to. He made friends with cashiers and waitstaff and supermarket greeters all around the state, and would check in on them and say hello, asking about their lives and listening to their troubles - often doing this for many, many years.
In the several years before he died, he became a high-school teacher and volunteered as a chaplain at the local prison. Many of the inmates at the prison were there for serious crimes, and some of them were stuck there for life. He grieved for every single inmate that he met, and he told me that he believed that every one of them could be redeemed, could have hope, could live a meaningful, wonderful life; he brought that hope, that redemption, that compassion to them every time he visited the prison. When he passed, we received countless letters from the inmates he helped and the students he taught. They mourned his loss just as deeply as we, his immediate family, did.
His extraordinary compassion came from the fact that he was a man who had big, great dreams for his life, yet never saw any of his dreams realized. He worked tirelessly, relentlessly to fulfill his dreams for himself and for the world he wanted to live in, but failed miserably almost every single time. He wanted to change the world and felt called to do great things, but the world seemed to disagree. He lived almost completely unfulfilled, often feeling that his life lacked meaning and purpose.
His pain and his anger at himself and his failures allowed him to see the deep, hidden pain that others (including complete strangers) were experiencing, and he harnessed all of his pain and his anger and self-loathing and turned it into the deepest compassion for others that he could create. In every hurting, broken, imprisoned, impoverished, suffering, failing person he saw himself, and he loved them and cared for them the best way he knew how: the way he believed his God loved and cared for him.
The year before he died, he and I developed a habit of taking long walks together through our neighborhood in the evenings. We would mostly argue, and we disagreed about everything, but he was always patient and compassionate even when I would get hot-headed. One night, we were talking about what we thought was the best life someone could live. I argued that the best life was one in which a person did big, “great” things that influenced the lives of millions, and he disagreed. The best life one could live, he said, was one in which you made a difference in the part of the world you touched, no matter how small. He said that a life in which you helped only one person because that was the only opportunity you had to help someone else was just as great a life as that of someone who changed the lives of millions - that many of the smallest, most seemingly-insignificant, most “normal” lives were truly the greatest.
Whether he ever realized it or not before he died, he lived a great life. He never fulfilled any of his biggest goals and dreams, and failed at many of the things he tried, but he changed the lives of all of the people he came into contact with. He truly made the world a brighter, kinder, more compassionate place.
When I look at myself and my siblings today, I can’t help but notice that each one of us is fulfilling at least one of his dreams. I am fulfilling his writing dreams. My little sister is working on research to fight the cancer that killed him. My little brother served in Afghanistan. My youngest sister has the same overwhelming, unwavering, generous compassion that he had. My youngest brother is studying to be a theologian and scholar just like my father always dreamed of becoming.
Some days I wonder if our dreams are really our own, or if we are all fated to fulfill the unrealized dreams of our parents. But today, as I remember my father and celebrate his life, it strikes me that perhaps the best way to remember the life of someone who shaped and inspired you is to realize their dreams. Perhaps the best way to honor them is to carry the torch they dropped, to pick up the broken pieces of their hopes for the world, to revisit their failures and turn them into successes. Perhaps the best way to celebrate them is to try as hard as you can to walk in the world with the same compassion, humility, love, and joy that they carried with them, so that the light of their life will not have been extinguished with their passing.