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“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. You always have the choice.” – the Dalai Lama

My father passed away yesterday, slipping free of his body in the early evening of a day that had begun with Karen and I and Dad’s faithful caregiver Hilda gathered around his bed, telling stories, sharing laughter through our tears as he slept peacefully between us. Dad was 95 and lived a remarkable life, from military service in World War II and the Korean War to a long career as an architect and planner, and two marriages that produced five sons, 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. His obituary reads like the outline for a novel.

As our family gathered around Dad in his final days, and continued talking and comforting one another in the hours after his passing, the same words kept surfacing over and over. Kind. Gentle. Compassionate.

For a long time our relationship was complicated. After my parents divorced when I was two, Dad was nearly absent from my life for two decades. When I reached adulthood, we had words. Neither of us was wrong in what we said, but our words came from a place of pain rather than compassion. When my own children arrived, things began to change. As a parent, you want to give your children everything. For me this included giving our kids the opportunity to know their grandfather, free from as much of the baggage of the past as I could manage to toss out the back window as we moved forward.

Over time, our regular visits created the space for Dad and me to get to know one another not as the archetypal father and son, but as two imperfect human beings reaching out to one another, however awkwardly, from a place of kindness and empathy. We didn’t heal our relationship so much as we created it, moment by moment, quietly passing the raw clay back and forth between us as we molded it into something new.

The last five years of Dad’s life were, by his own testimony, among the happiest. As a solitary widower he was more engaged than ever, able to live in his own home, tended by his wonderful caregiver, and visited frequently by family. We talked on the phone and saw one another more often than ever, and however mundane the conversations might have seemed in the moment—about baseball, or Bob Dylan, or the travel section in the Sunday paper—they were profound in the context of the path we had traveled together. We searched out avenues of connection, free from regret or recrimination, quietly reveling in the fact that we had managed to unlock the door between us and find a way into each other’s hearts.

Part of any parent’s role is to impart lessons to their children. Some do this consciously and overtly. Our relationship was never like that. And yet in the hours after Dad’s passing, the thing I’m in awe of is how vivid and powerful the lesson he left us with is. About five years ago I made the quote at the top of this page my wallpaper on my computer at work. In that moment, it was a reaction to stress I was experiencing in that part of my life; only in the last 24 hours have I come to realize why the Dalai Lama’s words resonated so strongly with me. This is Dad’s legacy: to choose kindness and compassion. I’m so proud of him.

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