Today is my father’s 70th birthday. It will be six years in March since he passed away. Anyone who knows me well at all, probably already knows this. Just as his living had the most grand effect on my life, his death has changed both me and my life as well. I know that it’s easy to make a person you love a saint in your mind after their death, to only remember the good things and make their effect on your life greater than it actually was. This is not the case with my father. My life would have been much different without him in it, and I can’t imagine that it would have been in a good way. He was a man of such quiet and deep kindness, generosity, and honesty. He was the most dependable person I have ever known. If my dad said it, he meant it, and you could count on it. He was also not a person to make grandiose promises or say things he didn’t mean just to make you feel better. While at times, this characteristic may have made him seem unemotional, it was this silent, unending honesty that was one the most beautiful things about him. And he loved his children with that same deep, honest love. Like a mountain, he was strong and unmoving, and yet dynamic and nurturing. And he was a breathtakingly beautiful constant in my life for 28 years.
For anyone who has lost someone you love dearly, I am so sorry for your loss. If love is what makes life worth living, then losing those you love must be what can make you fall apart. I’m sure that I emotionally and mentally fell apart after losing dad, but looking back, I’m really kind of proud of my strength. I didn’t see it then, but now I do. I endured, maybe unhappily and maybe in tears. But I’m still living. I’m happy today. I have two beautiful children to whom I try my best to be a kind, patient, loving, guiding, responsible parent. But even on the days when I feel I’ve failed at this, I remember my dad’s kind words when referring to the difficulty of being a parent. “You do the best you can with what you have.” I had no children at the time. These weren’t comforting words of advice that he was giving me. It was merely him trying to explain to me that no one is perfect, and that the best we have is all that we can give. And he was right. We all have our own problems and background. Having a child doesn’t take all that away. It gives you a new, beautiful love with a whole lot of responsibilities that go along with it.
Those words from years ago have helped me through many a day of feeling like a lesser parent than I would like to be, and given me the hope and strength to continue to do my best. In a lot of ways, I believe it’s my stepchildren who get the best of my dad’s kindness when it comes to being a parent. He was always so good to all my brothers and sisters, but two of them weren’t even his children. Still, he was there for them in life as much as he could be. He would have given either one of them anything they needed, well after the time that he and my mother were divorced. I believe he did this because he cared for them, and he knew it was the right thing to do. But I also believe he did it because he knew that they were my brother and sister, and he wanted to treat them as so. This is how I feel about my stepkids. I love them for who they are, and I take care of them as a parent should because it is my responsibility to do so when they are with me. But I also know that they are my own children’s siblings, and as that I shall forever treat them as my own children when given the chance.
Not only does my father continue to effect my outlook on life and my attitude as a parent everyday, he also had a great part to play in my career. He is the main reason I made it through college. I became a nurse mostly because of him. He didn’t pick my career for me, but his want for me to find a path and stick to it encouraged me to do just that. I already loved science, biology, psychology. I also wanted a job that helped people and filled a need in the world. Nursing and the medical field in general seemed a logical way to fill both my needs in a job and his wants for me to have a dependable career. Being a nurse is not necessarily an easy job, though, and nursing school is even harder. There were many times during college that I probably would have given up had it not been for his support and my want to make him proud. And he was proud of me when I graduated. And I was proud of myself. It may not be a major feat to some, but that accomplishment made me believe in myself and know that with hard work and perseverance I can accomplish anything. That feeling has never left me.
It has been said that everything happens for a reason. I think I kind of look at it in reverse. I don’t know that EVERYTHING happens for a reason. To me that would imply that every bad thing in the world had to happen for some good purpose. I find that a little hard to swallow. I do believe that we can choose to make the best of, find the good in, and learn from every experience, so that the bad things that do happen in life do not have to occur without purpose. That may be simply learning to be compassionate towards others because you know the pain you experienced in your own life.
The good things that have happened in my life because of losing Dad have been hard to find. He was such a wonderful person to have in the world, I find it hard to see any good that can come from him no longer being here for me to call when I need a few words of loving encouragement. Still, there have been some positives. Mainly the fact that because I don’t have him around to give me strength when I need it, I’ve had to look elsewhere for that. I’ve realized that most of the time, I can find it inside myself. I’m stronger than I thought I was. The world didn’t end when he died. There is still much beauty and love in it. And even though my father was not a real “religious” man, the physical loss of him has helped me spiritually. I still see him everywhere. Not literally, of course. But I see him in my oldest brother, with his kindness, ease of grace, and his pride in his son. I see him in my sister with her love for her children and passion for the outdoors. I see him in myself when I am patient and kind with my own babies and stepchildren. I see him so much that sometimes it feels as if I am looking at the world through his eyes. And maybe I am. Maybe that’s the best gift he ever gave to us. The ability to see the world with patience and understanding. I’m not perfect. Neither was my father. But he was a damn good dad. And I am grateful.
For anyone who is hurting over losing someone or hurting over some hard time in your life, I want you to know this: It does get better. Life is hard. There are times when your heart will break. Let it. Let it break, and then let it mend. Let it heal. Let others continue to love you and help you. And when you have regained your strength, reflect on your pain with compassion. Soften your hardened heart. Find what good remains in your life. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, if we will only be patient and look for it.
My dad’s birthday used to be the hardest day for me. Harder than Christmas or any other major holiday. I guess because it was the one day when I would always be sure to talk to him or do something for him. From the time when I was 8 and baked him an awful cake and wrapped up an old landscape portrait of a wooded lane for a gift, to taking him out for Mexican food (even though he probably wouldn’t let me pay), to coming over to the house and cooking a four course meal for him after he had spent the day at the golf course. It’s the one day of the year I atleast always talked to him, if not did something kind for him.
The first few years after he died, his birthday was unexpectedly hard. I’d find myself at work just suddenly crying and depressed. The past couple of years have gotten better, though. I still think about him and celebrate him, but I do it with love and fond memories. There may still be tears occasionally, but they are normally tears of gratitude and tenderness. I’ve decided to treat the day as it should be: a holiday. A day to celebrate the birth of a kind, beautiful, strong person and all he did and represented in my world.
So, Happy “Jim Highfill Day” to everyone! Hug your children. Call your parents. Go out and eat Mexican food and then lay on the couch watching old Star Trek movies with your family. Play a game of golf. Be kind, generous, and honest. Do a crossword puzzle at your own leisurely pace. Be patient with yourself and with others. Enjoy this beautiful day. And do the best you can with what you have been given.