Standing on the Shoulders of Luck

My grandpa always said that he had a lucky gene. He was a molecular biologist, so I have a tendency to believe him.

From his meager beginnings, he lived a life built on curiosity and tenacity, which earned him many recognitions in his field, a loving wife and family, and an ability to draw people in the way only storytellers can. He worked hard for what he obtained but, when asked, he said he was just in the right place at the right time.

Two weeks ago, at my brother’s wedding, I watched joy embody itself in a person’s soul as he half-walked, half-bounded down the aisle to the song “Lucky Man.” The turquoise waves of Big Sur crashed onto the rocks below. There is something about being married next to the ocean that gives significance to this ancient tradition. From the oceans came life that flourished on the land. Who knows, perhaps that first fish with legs left the ocean in search of a mate?

Big Sur Wedding

As an officiant for their wedding, I could not have been more happier to join my brother and the love of his life together in marriage. Even the dog yowled in enthusiasm.

By chance, my brother’s wedding fell two weeks before the 20th anniversary of my dad’s death, so I cannot help but think about my dad’s absence on such a momentous day. When we said good-bye to him so many years ago, we knew these days would come; the future graduations, weddings, and grandchildren waited for us outside those hospital doors.

On the day he lost his battle with cancer, the first snow of the season fell outside his hospital window on the University of Minnesota campus. It was gentle, almost soothing, as if Mother Nature were telling us to let go, that it would be okay. We drifted through those final days of his life much like those wayward snowflakes. 

I remember putting my fingers to his wrist to count his slow pulse. I remember calling my dorm roommate from the phone in the room next to us to let her know that my dad was “basically dying right now” and that I wouldn’t be back until after the Thanksgiving break. I remember telling my dad how proud I was to have him as a father and how he only responded by saying, “I know.” 

Saying goodbye wasn’t easy for either of us.

I remember how I sat on the pale yellow window seat in the hospital room, crying until my head ached, thinking about how unfair—how unlucky—we all were. Why did he have to die? He was young and healthy and had done everything right.

My dad enjoyed the simple details of life. He loved laughing at a funny movie, telling stories to his friends around the dinner table, and walking in the woods to find the special kind of quiet that can only be found under tree branches. But, do I really know why he enjoyed these things? Can I ever understand who he truly was? I was eighteen when he died—a kid—and I would never be given the chance to know him as an adult.

Oddly, as a parent, I feel like I’ve connected to him more than I ever have before. I find myself thinking back to him as a parent and how he differed from my mom. My mom was—and still is—the constant gardener. She treats the wounds, nourishes the creativity, and sneaks in treats when we least expect them. We grew in her love like the prairie plants she now coaxes to life in her backyard. 

My dad tended and cared for us, too, and showed his love for us with his undying support. He encouraged us to step out of our shells by trying hard and to not worry what others thought of us. At the time, I found it annoying but now I understand that he just wanted us to become strong, confident adults. Perhaps he did this because he had to overcome the same obstacles when he was young. This is a question I will never get to ask him.

He was also more reactive than my mom, with a quicker temper that we tried to avoid igniting. He was not mean or aggressive, by any means, but just human. His words always came from love, even if they came out a little harsh. He worked full-time and had to come home to a couple of kids that were bored, loud, and, at times, obnoxious.

For example, he was the parent that came pounding down the stairs at 2 AM to tell us to go to bed at slumber parties. He was the one that ran across the yard, yelling at my friend who had jumped onto the John Deere lawnmower being driven by my 10-year-old brother. He was also the one that was a menacing tower, glaring down at me from the second floor when I came home after midnight right after getting my driver’s license. “Your mother is driving around looking for you!” he yelled. I cried in the bathroom that night.

At the time, I thought he was cranky. Now, I realize he was trying to protect us—and his sanity—but we just weren’t listening.

As a parent of two young children, I find myself in his shoes, reacting the same way. I’m the mommy monster—quick tempered and reactionary. I flare out at my kids like a gorgon, those slithering snakes writhing around my head, whispering evil words into my ears. You can’t do this, you have failed at being a good mom, you will never have time to yourself again.

I have to remove myself from their small grubby hands as they try to climb up me like I’m an insurmountable mountain. They are the steadfast heroes, trying to defeat the gorgon by any means necessary so they can obtain the coveted love and comfort that only a mom can provide. In the end, I always patch up the pieces with kisses and wide arms, but the roller coaster continues—and the gorgon lives on.

If my dad were here today, would he be giving me words of encouragement with a parenting story of his own? Would he tell me he lived a joyous life with us kids even if it didn’t seem like it every day? Would he have considered himself lucky despite his early death?

I have so many good memories of road trips, dinner-time laughs, and late evening baseball games in our backyard to know he enjoyed having kids and I find hope in this, for both me and for him. I hope he found gratitude for his shortened–but full–life and I hope I can look past my own screaming children to find some sanity in the chaos.

Enjoying a hike with dad in Minnesota

As I think about the anniversary of my dad’s death, I try not to dwell on the heartache that is always there. As ageless as those turquoise waves crashing on the shore, life and death follow a cyclical rhythm; we are merely a pinprick of presence on Earth’s timeline. The time we have here is fleeting. So, I think of the fortune my brother and I had, growing up together as kids with good parents. I like to think my dad grew, too, as a parent, and he appreciated the time he had with us, however short it was.

His own dad, my curious and hard-working grandpa, would have looked upon his great grandkids with wonder in his eyes. He would have been overjoyed to hear that my brother—the Lucky Man himself—is expecting his first son with his wife. As they build their home around love and kindness, my grandpa would have called them lucky.

As I think about the life that has gone by and the life that is coming, I can only embrace the present by encouraging myself and all new parents to remember a few important things. No parent knows what they are doing, we are only human, and sometimes those monsters come out.

But, if you can set aside selfishness without losing your own self, you might find the gems that hide amongst the clutter. You will see yourself as a parent and the person you used to be. You will see how important you are to the tiny humans that stare up at you. If you are lucky, you might just find yourself in the right place and the right time and experience life at its fullest.

Published by Leah Abbey

I write about nature, parenting, and fiction from my home in the San Diego area. I try to keep this blog updated at least weekly. If you haven't heard from me in a while, it's probably because I've been working on my novel. (Or, just trying to stay sane while my three-year-old runs over his baby sister with a toy school bus.)

4 thoughts on “Standing on the Shoulders of Luck

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Leah. You beautifully expressed so many true things about being a parent.
    I have to tell you that your dad would say and in fact did say, that he was fortunate to have two such wonderful children.
    From my own past experience, I will just add that once you have children you forgive your parents for everything. We are all trying the best we can.


  2. So lovely, Leah. I love the way you wade through memories looking for connections and clues to explain your parenting and how you were raised. The way you described Josh dancing down the aisle to the rhythm of the ocean surf made me so happy for him and Jessie. Memory is so tenuous and fragile, but I think what really matters is how you feel about them. Your memories of Doug are so honest and unembellished that they resound with veracity.


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