My dad is, as one of my aunts calls it, a tough little knot. A real tough cookie.
At 85 years young, his resilience and sense of humor are fully intact. He wakes up each day happy as a clam. And that’s despite being a reluctant widower; dementia creeping its way in; and painful arthritis in a bad knee joint.
He’s my hero. One of my go-to, lifetime role models of how to take a hit and keep moving forward.
We all know life can be beautiful, and that it also can be hard as nails. One moment everything is running pretty smoothly and we breathe deeply, grateful for the smooth ride. Then we blink, and life goes awry. A child is injured, a spouse loses a job, someone dies unexpectedly.
Through all of his tough moments, my dad has been tougher. He has great faith in God, never worrying about anything.
Dad’s resilience has always been there. It’s in his stories of leaving the familiarity and solid love of his childhood home to attend college. How he earned 40 cents an hour as head waiter in the dining hall of Virginia State University to pay for college. How he endured more than he may ever tell us as the only Negro officer in the Army Corps of Engineers in Hanau, Germany, circa 1953. How he refused to give up his seat on trains below the Mason-Dixon line when ordered to do so several times because of his skin color.
Or, how he never wavered but stepped up even more as a husband and father when my mom became ill for many years. How he got out of bed early as always the day after mom died suddenly and, even in his deep grief, never shut down. How, 5 years later, he did the very same thing when my brother – his only son and first-born – died after a short battle with cancer. How he has allowed us to lovingly, but firmly, uproot him from his life and home over 300 miles away to be with us for his own safety and our peace of mind.
Dad’s mornings begin with reading the comics (“the best part of the newspaper,” he says) and tackling the crossword puzzle. He finds something to laugh about every day – a genuine chuckle that really tickles his funny bone. Whether it’s Dagwood’s shenanigans in the Blondie comic strip or the latest antics of presidential candidates on TV, Dad finds the humor and runs with it. When leaving the house, his first observation is always, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” When exiting the senior center he enjoys each week, he leaves everyone smiling by saying farewell in at least four different languages. “Good evening! Auf Wiedersehen! Arrivederci! Adieu!”
His physical body slows him down tremendously, requiring use of a walker to get around. Moderate dementia messes with his memory and moods, especially late in the day. But his spirit? Nah. That resilience and yes-we-can positivity that have always been inside of him still show up brightly, clearly, each day.
From where I sit, those qualities allow Dad to keep it moving when many of us would rather fold up, hide under a rock, or check out. After all, isn’t it easier to throw our hands up in the air and surrender when we feel a situation is “just too hard?” Or stay in bed all day when the world is throwing its hardest jabs at us? What about those moments we do the bare minimum because we believe “this won’t matter anyway?”
I’ve had plenty of those moments. I’ve lingered in Woe-Is-Me Land when I felt pummeled by life’s demands, heartaches and more. I’ve hung my head in despair, feeling defeated after making some silly mistake–again. And I’ve certainly been impatient with others when completely exhausted.
We all have those days.
Yet, we know we cannot control everything that happens to us, especially the tough moments. We can only control how we perceive those moments, and how we react to them. I’m learning every tough moment is really a chance to stretch and grow my own tough cookie-ness. That there’s a bit of wisdom in honestly seeing tough moments as necessary travel companions from time to time on our life’s journey. Because they build our muscles of courage to keep on going, our resilience, and even our ability to chuckle when we’d rather sit down and cry.
Dad’s example reminds me to look up and out, not down. To keep pressing on. To remember we can actually conquer anything with divine faith and sheer will. And to be a tough cookie who can still laugh when tough moments come knocking on our door.
In what areas of life do you need more tough cookie-ness?