It’s a blessing and a curse to be predisposed to solve problems; to have the ability to quickly assess multiple solutions to a difficulty or a challenge and deliver a set of options that are likely to succeed. Sure, you could be sought-after for your wisdom and perspective, but:
- Your solution may be correct, but a pain to follow.
- Your solution may be correct, but the person/committee/company who asked for it is going to do what he/she/they want, anyway.
- Your solution may be correct, but the follow-through will be mishandled, reflecting negatively back on you.
- Your solution will be wrong, sometimes.
- Who asked you to pipe up, anyway?
Back in July, my sisters and I traveled to California to be with my mother when her husband passed away. We also spent several hours with my father and his wife while we were in town.
Due to the cancer that has been taking its insidious course through my father’s body, I have found myself in the midst of grown-up conversations that a child never really wants to have with his parent (and vice-versa, too).
That Saturday afternoon, my sisters and I picked up an assortment of foods my dad would enjoy for lunch — hot wings and steak sandwiches, fat french fries, milkshakes — and sat down at his kitchen table for our little feast. We bantered and joked while we ate, as always, but as we were putting the final touches on the bleu cheese dip and were breaking out the little handi-wipes to sop up wing sauce from the corners of our mouths, our father told us that he’d decided not to pretend like everything was okay anymore.
His wife nodded at him in encouragement, and he continued.
Our father said that he felt awful most of the time lately, and though he’d been putting on a hardy front around us and his grandchildren, the truth was that he felt like crap — his chemotherapy sapped his energy, the side effects were manageable but still painful, and it was time for him to just be honest about how he was doing.
Anybody who has a dad knows what a big deal this is. We fathers believe that it is our duty to always be strong, no matter how sick or lost or scared we may be on the inside. We act bluff and bulletproof for our kids because that is how we believe we can best protect them.
But my father realized he wasn’t protecting us by acting as if he wasn’t suffering. He didn’t say he was going to stop fighting or that he was giving in to the situation; just that he wasn’t going to pretend like he didn’t feel like shit in front of us. Which, really, was an incredibly brave decision.
And though he wasn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon, we needed to talk about his wishes for when that time did come down the road.
My sisters and I exchanged glances with each other, not sure that we were prepared for this conversation, but visibly relieved to be together.
I have never felt the fact that I’m growing older more strongly than in that moment. Having a child provides incremental evidence of the years passing. Having a conversation with a parent about what he wants when he passes away is a body blow that leaves you breathless. It’s like having your face smashed against a window, forced to stare down the relentless march of time. This is a heady, adult situation, where you have to nod and be serious and not fall apart. Or make bad jokes. You take in the details in a sort of abstract way, while still feeling the gut-punch that you’re talking about real stuff that’s going to happen before you’re ready for it.
My father told us that he wanted me to write his obituary.
I nodded. “Okay,” I said, quelling the panic that the responsibility brought on.
Our talk continued — memorial service, funeral arrangements, what happens to the family keepsakes that his wife won’t keep. But I didn’t really hear any of that, because I was trying out turns of phrase in my mind.
As the conversation ended, me using a finger to make swirly designs in the grease at the bottom of a cardboard fry basket, we sat, silently, thinking about all that had been discussed.
“I think we all need pedicures,” I said, looking up. “Can we get into a salon anywhere close by?”
But after the pedicures, after my mother’s husband’s funeral the next day, after the pensive flight home, I realized that I didn’t know enough about my father to write something that really told his story. I sort of knew his work trajectory, and of course where he’d lived over the years, but that was more of an abstract framework than anything I could put into cogent paragraphs that would sum up his life for total strangers while satisfying the people who know him that I got it right.
So the next time I made the trip out to Cali, I decided to ask my father to tell me the story of his professional career — why we lived in DC and Virginia when I was little, why we moved from there to Denver to LA to Colorado Springs. My initial thought was that I’d get a sort of oral resume to turn into a quick bio. But the more I listened, the more I picked up on the patterns of my father’s life — how a cocktail of intelligence, a strong moral compass, and a healthy dose of ego kept him from settling into any one job for too long.
The talent that came from being an effective problem-solver was also the very thing that made staying in place so difficult for him. Whether he created efficiencies that made his own job unnecessary, or didn’t back down when he knew he was right, his fix-this mentality got him in trouble as much as it brought him opportunities and successes.
My father has always been the one with the fix I hadn’t thought of. I could call him any time with a rundown of a situation, and he would always come up with a set of possible next steps that were better than anything I’d thought of. His ways of thinking have had a serious impact on how I approach challenges — looking at things from different directions, approaching a problem as an opportunity, turning a situation upside-down to unlock the best ways to fix it.
But when you’re answering to a boss who’s already intimidated by your intelligence and ambition, or you’re so sure you’re right when everyone else disagrees, or you are unable to back down because you’ve put your ego on the line, a problem-solver’s on-the-job situation can go sideways fairly quickly.
You know how I know that? Because I have lived it. My career has been as diverse as my father’s, mostly due to the same issues he had — not couching good advice to my employers in words of deference, not listening to what was really needed, and therefore finding the right answer to the wrong problem, becoming frustrated when I knew I was right and not backing down when it was the smart thing to do. My dad’s narrative is a cautionary tale for me, and also a very big reason that I went off to do my own thing.
I’m good at recognizing when I’m wrong, and taking responsibility for that. And I’ll always sacrifice myself when the moral position is also the dangerous one. But I still haven’t mastered the ability to let go when I know I’m right. I’m better at it than I was, though.
My father isn’t working now — most of his energy is wrapped up in fighting off the asshole cancer that’s messing with his body. But the mental acuity that helped him look at problems and find creative solutions is still an essential part his life, whether it’s talking to the doctors and assessing what to do next, helping his wife through difficult days as a hospice nurse for a company that keeps cutting budgets, or sitting down with his grown-up son, who still turns to him with the occasional conundrum. I’m pretty sure his tenacity in untangling difficult predicaments is extending his life — that my father continues to fight because he sees this situation as another problem for him to solve.
And now my family and friends turn to me, too, for advice — for thoughts on how to address an issue with a coworker, whether to apply for a new job, or how to bring up a difficult issue with the new boyfriend.
Simone looks to me as well, of course. It’s gratifying to think I could carry forward my father’s lessons — both in how to look at thorny situations and in how to avoid investing too much of one’s own ego into how they play out.
And, hopefully, I’ll still be able to turn to him when I need help for a long time to come. Prayers are welcome and gratefully accepted.