This week, I received some happy news from my dad who, after a lifetime of working for his family, has finally taken the time to enjoy life in his retirement.
For as long as I can remember, my dad has worked at something or other. Even when he wasn’t occupied with his job as an engineer, he would be doing all kinds of projects at home and helping others wherever he could.
As far as I know, he never indulged in much for himself, and when I was growing up I can remember his love of cars, good music, and similar pursuits. But he always put his family first – our needs (and wants) were his primary concern.
Like my late mother, my dad’s no saint – we certainly had our conflicts over the years, predictably more so during my teenage years. At that time, my favourite poem was This Be The Verse by British poet Philip Larkin, which bluntly points to the failings of parents when it comes to their children.
It begins, “They f*** you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do/ They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you.” As a teenager, I felt that Larkin was wiser than Shakespeare, and got to the point quicker.
Despite the periods of dislike that many boys go through with their dads, I always maintained my love and respect for a man who worked tirelessly for others while carrying the burden of his own private struggles, as we all do.
When you’re young, it’s difficult to see your mum and dad as being human. They’re supposed to be Superhuman: they should never make mistakes, and they should know all the answers to life’s problems. They should do all this while remaining composed and attentive at all times.
Of course, that’s not possible. Parents are only human, and they have the most difficult job on earth.
As I grew older, my teenaged thinking shifted in its perspective. “My parents could have done a much better job!” became, “My parents did the best they could – and they could have done a much worse job.”
The realisation, slow to come, was that it was easy to take for granted all that my parents had given me – not least of all the room to explore for myself the values and beliefs I felt I needed to cultivate.
In the Buddhist suttas or scripture, the Buddha suggests that, if we were to carry our parents on our shoulders and walk around for 100,000 kelapas (a kelapa is around 4,320 million human years!), we would still not have paid back the “deep kindness” our parents have shown us.
Of course, there are children who have the misfortune to be neglected or abused by their parents or guardians. This amplifies for me the fact that my parents did the best job they knew how to do, and then some.
When my dad told me that he was selling his house and buying a holiday home, it made me happy to think that he was doing something for himself, and getting around in a car he has always wanted. Our border collie, Tess, will no doubt keep him in good company, and I’ll be sure to continue to encourage him to enjoy more of his retirement for himself now that my sisters are older, and I am settled.
When I first read the Buddha’s teachings on the kindness of our parents, I felt that he was being over-the-top. Upon reflection, when I think of everything parents have to do to keep their children safe, secure and well, his message is driven home: there truly is no way to repay the deep kindness of our parents. Even when we weigh up their flaws and faults, they don’t come close to matching the love, dedication and care loving parents give.
I used to believe that my dad and I were totally different, but there are more deeper similarities than there are superficial differences. For example, we’re both very private people and we tend to show our love and affection in practical ways rather than in words. On the other hand, he hates peanut butter and I think he’s crazy. Then again, he can build pretty much anything from scratch, whereas I struggle to build a Jenga tower. In my defence, there’s a lot of pressure in playing Jenga!
In The Picture Of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” I’ve sometimes wondered whether we should be seeking forgiveness from our parents more so than we might look to forgive them.
In the end, we are, parents and children both, all flawed people, and therein lies the importance of unconditional love – the gift of being cherished no matter who you are or what you do.
And for that, I feel enormously blessed and deeply grateful for having two parents who did their best and always pulled through for their children, no matter what. Thanks for everything, Dad – now it’s time to put you first and enjoy yourself.