If there was one thing I remember hearing my father say over and over as I was growing up it had to be, “do as I say, not as I do.” Oh there were other sayings, plenty of them, but no matter what the moment of insanity we were enduring, that was the phrase he liked to use best. Furniture flew, words cut deep, and fear ran high year after year as he struggled to find the best version of himself. He was born just as the stock market crashed and the Great Depression landed upon our great nation. He grew up in a time of uncertainty in a family that was torn apart by loss and uncertainty. My grandfather had come to this country from Canada to start over, make a new life for himself. He left a young love behind and lost another almost as soon as he settled in New England. My father searched for this lost love for all of his life. I can only guess that he found a certain amount of peace in anger, distrust, and fear. He lashed out when he felt most vulnerable and he tore down those around him that reminded him of what he knew he wasn’t. He fought his entire life, punching and kicking back at the very things that could have loved him most. He bared his pain with those who knew him best and saved his charm, wit, and uncanny ability to connect with strangers and people down the street. He was abused by life, swallowed up by a world too cold and jaded to pull him into its arms, and left to find his own way back to a place of peace and love. He just never seemed to find his way and ultimately made the one choice that most find unforgiveable. I believe that in choosing to take his own life he was choosing to end his own pain and may have also believed it would do the same for me, my siblings, and my mom. As I sat at his memorial service the phrase, “do as I say, and not as I do” rang loud and clear and filled my senses with regret, sorrow, and despair for not having found a way to love him enough, maybe even love him at all.
I never cared much for animals growing up. I was never sure of how best to approach them or to let them know that I was safe, a friend to them. I wanted to love them, I wanted to be able to run to them and smother them with unconditional love, I just didn’t know how. My first pet was a cat, its name was Sylvestor. It was black and white and very independent. It would curl up on my neck or my stomach when I laid on the couch and purr. It seemed foreign to me. He trusted me and I suppose loved me. I began to feel the peace and certainty that comes from having an animal. I began to feel a constant energy in my life amidst a whirlwind of loud noise and insecurity. As a teenager I quickly became lost in my own senses and lack of self worth. I withdrew from my family and friends and spent way too much time entirely in my own head, trying to reason out my own existence and a way out of a world I didn’t much like living in. On the outside, I portrayed a girl who was bright and eager to please, especially at school. I was doing as I was told and not what I witnessed in my every day life.
I was a lost puppy and continued to be for most of my adult life. I scampered about life doing tricks for recognition and tidbits of affection and was eager to please teachers, bosses, friends, and family. My worth was the attention I gained when eagerly sought and the emptiness when I was alone without an audience. I yearned for something different, something more substantial, I just had no idea of what that might be. I tenaciously followed rules and upheld social expectations, I mapped out my entire life before I turned twenty assuring myself constantly that everything would be okay. From the outside looking in it mostly was. I worked my way through college, married my high school sweetheart, and had a very sweet baby boy exactly nine months after I said, “I do.” And then just when I thought I had it all figured out, I answered the phone one afternoon and my life was turned upside down in an instant.
A sheriff had found my father’s body in his house in Houlton, Maine. He had shot himself in the head. I held the phone tight and did not stir. A lack of emotion filled the silence and left me unsure of what to say or do next. Everything I had ever been running from simply dissipated in that moment and I was left standing with no place to go. Twenty years have passed and I still feel the same way. I wish that I felt differently, that I had a pain that won’t go away, but I don’t. I simply have a space that I have held in reserve with hope that one day it may be filled with something from my dad that I could wrap my arms around and treasure like all children wish they could do. My space is left standing knowing that it will remain empty without reconciliation or a simple rewrite of “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” So with the knowledge that somethings in life just can’t be changed I have remembered perhaps the greatest lesson my father ever taught me, “to do as he said, and not as he did.”
My father told me to always look people in their eyes as you shook their hand with a firm grasp. My father told me to always look up at the sky to see the birds in the trees and which way the leaves were blowing in the wind to see if a storm might be coming. My father told me that I should always say please, thank you, and you’re welcome and always to offer your share to others who have less. My father told me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say than I shouldn’t say anything at all. My father told me to hold the door for people when I am out in public no matter if they are men or women or younger or older. My father told me to always listen to people when they spoke to me and to wait my turn in line and never to cut no matter how badly I wanted something. He told me to never use curse words or strike out at someone in anger or fear. My father told me to never sit idle when others beside me are working or struggling in their accomplishments. My father told me that we all deserve kindness and respect regardless of the color of our skin or the church of our religion. He told me to never touch his personal belongings or those of anyone else’s and my father told me to never be the first one to walk away from a chore…..these are the rules that I have tried to live my life by, during my greatest successes and darkest failures. These are his words that I remember and use to push out the moments I so desperately want to forget. These are the words that make me grateful that he was my father.
But, perhaps the words that have meant the most to me for all of my life were those that he seemed to repeat over and over again….you’re not allowed to say I can’t. I was never allowed to say I couldn’t do a homework assignment or figure out how something worked or that I was too tired to finish a chore or a task. I was never allowed to say I couldn’t do something without repercussion. It seems ironic now coming from a man who just couldn’t hold on one more day to a life that seemed an endless disappointment and levy of pain and sorrow. It seems ironic now that the man who made me feel most vulnerable and fearful in life was without a doubt the same man who gave me the gumption and tenacity to keep pushing forward in life when I only wanted to give up. If I had never been taught to “do as I say and not as I do” I may not have had the courage and fortitude to persevere during times of uncertainty and fear in my life and even worse I may have settled into places of unhappiness and discord.
But I didn’t, even when I wanted to. During the times in my life when I felt knocked down and dragged through the mud, I did what I was told and pulled myself up and changed courses, took a new direction in life hoping it would lead me to a better place of understanding and one in which I could find a way to loving myself. You know, forty four years later and I believe with all my heart that I am almost there. I have found a place in which I am peaceful and loving and on most days am a better version of myself. In an ironic twist I am surrounded not only by a loving family but also by a loving farm of animals that have each come to us by way of serendipity. I am living a life I once dreamed might be possible if I only pleased enough people. I could have saved myself a lot of aggravation if I had only realized sooner that living in joy comes from loving oneself, and knowing that we are all connected and never alone in our thoughts, actions, desires, and wishes for a better version of our selves. I find my most peaceful moments in life with our animals on our farm. What I once struggled so painfully to feel with animals comes so quick and natural now. I am loved unconditionally and I am able to love unconditionally… and if there was one thing that I could say to my children that they would hear me say it would be, “don’t do what I say or even what I do, but find your own loving path to being the best version of yourself so that you may allow yourself to be….whatever that may be….”