Standing on the Shoulders of Luck

A personal essay on loss, parenting, and finding beauty in the day-to-day

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 modest beginnings, he lived a life built on curiosity and tenacity, which earned him many recognitions in his field, a loving 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. He truly believed he was lucky.

Perhaps it runs in the family. 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—maybe that first fish with legs left the ocean in search of a mate?

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. In any case, we drifted through those final days of his life much like those early-winter snowflakes: fragile and likely to melt at a moment’s notice. 

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 laughed more loudly at a funny movie than anyone I know, except for maybe my brother. He captivated his friends with stories around the dinner table. He left the bustle of L.A. to live in rural Minnesota, where he could find the special kind of quiet that can only be found under tree branches deep in the woods. 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 our best and to not worry what others thought of us. He would go out of his way to embarrass me just to prove this point. Like any teenager, I found it exceedingly 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, at slumber parties, he was the parent that came pounding down the stairs at two in the morning to tell my friends and me to go to bed. He was the one that ran across the yard, yelling at my friend who had jumped onto the John Deere riding lawnmower being driven by my 10-year-old brother. He was also the one that was a menacing tower, glaring down the stairs at me 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. Sometimes, 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.

My children 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. Their grubby hands reach for me as I push them away. 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 how to balance the joy with the hardships that come with parenting?

When he lay on that hospital bed with the November snowfall outside, did he consider himself lucky despite his early death? 

My many fond memories of road trips, dinner-time laughs, and late evening baseball games in our backyard tell me 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.

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 Big Sur waves crashing on the shore, life and death follow a cyclical rhythm; we are merely a pinprick of presence on Earth’s timeline. From this perspective, I see the fortune my brother and I have had growing up together with good parents. I like to think my dad grew, too, as a parent, and that he appreciated the time he had with us, however short it was. 

His own dad—my curious, hard-working molecular biologist 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—also has a new son. As he and his wife 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 to remember a few important things: No parent knows what they are doing, I am only human, and sometimes my monsters come out. 

When I set aside my selfishness—even for a few moments—I find the gems hidden amongst the clutter. I appreciate my smart, creative, funny children and I will do anything to see them thrive in a world of wonder. They need me as much as I need them, whether I can admit it or not.

And, setting aside selfishness does not mean losing my sense of self. I have found opportunities to grow in the in between: those moments after bedtime, on the weekend, or between playing and making dinner. That’s when I squeeze in a podcast or a few notes on my novel. I can still see myself as a parent and the person I used to be—and the one I will be. Maybe I am even a smidgen of the adult my dad imagined me to be.

If I truly am lucky, I might just find myself in the right place and the right time and experience life at its fullest.

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