Sunday, June 19, 2011

On Father's Day, lessons from our beloved Pops

On March 2, 2011, I received an email from my mom that I could have never been prepared for: my 81 year old grandpa – one of the most influential people in my entire life – had a large tumor in his pancreas, and they were pretty sure it was malignant. The confirmation came 9 days later: pancreatic cancer, stage 4, incurable, 3-6 months. That combination of words still leaves me speechless.

About two and half months later, on May 18, 2011, our beloved Pops was promoted to glory.

This blog post isn’t about morning Pops, however, although there has unfortunately been lots of that. Rather, it’s meant to welcome others to join in the celebration of his life and to continue his legacy by sharing the stories that forever shaped and changed my life during the 26 years that I physically spent with him.

And ironically, focusing on the positive – even in seemingly hopeless situations – is one of the most reoccurring lessons that Pops taught me, most recently through the way he handled my grandmother’s passing. Even though she was only 71 years young, and died very suddenly and unexpectedly, Pops told me that he didn’t want to focus on morning her death, but rather to celebrate all the amazing times he had with her. “Nana and I had 51 good years together, Benj. I’m a lucky man, and she was an amazing woman. What good would it do to be bitter?”  

Although I was shocked, challenged and inspired at how Pops processed my grandmother’s passing, I never realized how profoundly optimistic and infinitely hopeful his outlook on life was until I called him the day I received my mom’s message. In her email, she had actually written that Pops was “staying positive and cracking jokes like he always does,” but somehow I couldn’t internalize that. The news for me was too much to accept, and I didn’t see how anyone else – let alone the person most affected by it – could be processing it either.

I called him from my room in Lahore, and he answered the phone with the same excitement and chuckle that he always had: “Hey Benj! How’s it going?”(I called him every other week and he would always answer the phone this way!). He went on to ask me how my project was going, and only after about 10 minutes mentioned the cancer. “You know Benj, I know it’s not looking great, but I’ve seen a lot of things and been through a lot of things, and I’ve realized that you just have to take it one day at a time. When you get depressed and start overreacting, well, that just makes it harder on you.”

Just take it one day at a time… That’s how Pops lived his life, enjoying the present without fear for tomorrow. He had mastered the ability of living in the moment, and literally confronted death with his classic smirk and a backpack full of jokes. Sure, he mapped things out and believed (probably more than anyone!) in preparation (e.g., a good night sleep and a solid oatmeal breakfast), but he was never thrown off by any unexpected turns or roadblocks.

On the phone that day, something inside of me changed forever. Here I was sitting in Pakistan, worried and anxious about what seemed to be some pretty tense political situations, and yet Pops was literally facing death with a smirk. If he could maintain that type of optimism, given his situation, than who was I to be worried about the very improbable possibilities I was facing?

As a result of this optimism, I have no doubt that Pops lived the fullest life that he could possibly have lived. He saved hundreds of lives during his 28 years in the Air Force, he brightened the lives of thousands as a cook and host, he raised 3 beautiful daughters and dozens of grandkids, and he remarried a beautiful woman named Lee just one month before he passed away.

Pops might not be with us to celebrate Father's Day today, but my prayer is that we can continue to carry his legacy forward by taking things one day at a time, by enjoying the present because tomorrow will worry about itself and by truly celebrating the ones we love.