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My Dad passed away this past weekend. For the past 5 years he had suffered from Parkinson’s, a disease that methodically and steadily destroyed his body and mind — and ultimately took his life. Several days before he passed, my sister Shannon called to say that Dad would no longer be able to eat or drink — he had lost his ability to swallow — and that he would spend his few remaining days in hospice care.
Realizing his time was near, I raced home from work, haphazardly threw clothes in a suitcase, and barreled down to Potomac, Maryland, where he lived. For the next 3 days, my 4 siblings, mother, and I huddled around Dad and shared, amidst laughter and tears, stories about the man Dad was, the lessons he taught us through his own successes and failures, and the tremendous impact he had on those around him. Dad’s life was far from perfect, and he had had a rough last handful of years. Our time together helped all of us remember who Dad was when we was in his prime — when he was our hero.
Most remarkable about Dad’s last 3 days, perhaps, was that Dad, while non-verbal, was alert and attuned to what was happening around him. We’re a competitive, animated bunch (very much the way Dad was and encouraged us to be), and so our storytelling was competitive and animated and rambunctious. Occasionally one of us would look over and find a trace of a smile on Dad’s face, an observation we would point out to him and the others. Dad was clearly enjoying time alone with his entire family for the first time in over 20 years.
Throughout Dad’s closing days, Dad heard anecdote after anecdote about the legacy he was about to leave behind, and the memories and life lessons he would be sending us off with. And there were many.
Here are a few …
Lesson 1: Dream Big
Dad grew up in a small middle-class Irish enclave in Queens, New York. According to Dad, his father would periodically take him to wealthy neighborhoods to walk around and show him what was possible for him when he got older. The message from his father was that this could all be his. To Dad, it was impossible to dream too big. He wanted the world for himself and his kids, and fully expected us all to get it. Dad pushed us to imagine the unachievable and race like hell to achieve it. When I presented him with the occasional business idea, he was quick to ask how quickly I could scale it. When I told him I was going to write a business book, he told me to prepare for the New York Times Bestseller list. Dad talked about being the best in the world at what he did — an audacious claim based in nothing more than his own anecdotal evidence. It was probably nothing more than a big dream, a fantasy. But it worked for him. This audacity helped Dad achieve wild success, landing unprecedented training contracts for giants such as ADP, Texaco, McDonald’s and Xerox. All because he dreamed so big.
He had this remarkable skill of letting the insignificant things go and dealing head on with the things that really mattered.
Lesson 2: Live Big
Dad’s father died relatively young, and Dad frequently voiced his premonitions about his own early demise. So maybe that’s why Dad packed his life with rich and full experiences at every turn. If Dad wanted to have something, he got it. If he wanted to do something, he did it. The moment he had 2 nickels to rub together, he spent them. Dad lived big. “You only go around once,” was something Dad frequently said to justify a risky business play or explain away a lavish purchase. It seemed to serve as a reminder to him (and us) that life could be cut unexpectedly short, and that he (and we) would be wise to get his (our) big experiences in while he (we) could.
Lesson 3: Be Present
Dad spent most of our upbringing racing around the country consulting with and training business leaders. The moment he was done working, he would race back home just in time to coach a basketball game, have dinner with the family, or play a pickup game in the backyard. He wasn’t vacant or lost in his work when he was with us. When he was with us, he was fully with us. Long after we went to bed, Dad would return to work, staying up until the wee hours of the morning to get a proposal out or prepare for the following day’s events. He threw himself into whatever he was doing, and made you feel as if you were the center of his universe when you were with him. He was magnetic. Being present undoubtedly added to his magnetism.
Lesson 4: Pick Your Moments (But When They Appear, Pounce)
Dad prided himself on his strategic and calculating nature. He rarely made a move that didn’t have a purpose behind it. He had this remarkable skill of letting the insignificant things go and dealing head on with the things that really mattered. I have several memories of Dad pulling me aside at critical junctures of my life to make me aware of the weight of a decision I was about to make. His messages were sometimes critical, but invariably hopeful and motivating and timely. They righted my ship without fail because they were delivered at just the right time.
Lesson 5: Be Interested, Not Interesting
In his final days, what struck us most was the overwhelming number of personal stories from old friends and extended family about the impact Dad had on their lives. Perhaps we had collectively buried these stories, or unconsciously repressed them, or just forgotten them. As Dad grew older, probably because he became concerned about the legacy he would leave, he tried increasingly (a little too hard, maybe) to be interesting. But in his prime, people loved Dad — they craved his company and insight and interest that he took in them. People fascinated Dad, and he had an art for drawing out their stories.
When Dad was at his best, he was comfortably and confidently Dad. And in that comfort and confidence, he could let go of his own ego and pull out the complexities of the people he was with instead of sharing his own with others. His sincere interest in others drew others closer to him, and left them convinced that they were in the presence of someone endlessly interesting.
My siblings and I were with Dad when he passed. We were sad, of course. But there was a positive feeling in the room as well — each of us left Dad that night feeling closer to him and each other than we had in a very long time. And we left armed and more cognizant of the lessons Dad had equipped us with.
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