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  • jeniferfoster2

Simple living and forgiveness

Updated: May 23

I was down visiting my dad today.  It was such a beautiful day, I decided to spend more time than I had planned – missing my evening appointment.  I’m sure my client will forgive me – and it’s not every day I get to spend time with my dad.  Plus – who knows how long these visits will continue.  I must take advantage of the time while I can. 


You see – my father is 91 years old.  He had a stroke two and a half years ago.  Since then, he is still physically decent (although his health has deteriorated with the stroke); but, cognitively is where he has seen the most decline.  He has very few long-term memories.  It is a rare day when he remembers my name or even who I am to him – although I can tell by his expression when he sees me, he knows he knows me and that I’m important to him.  He just isn’t certain how.  Prior to his stroke, however, he still went in to work every day.  Truth be told, I think he always prided himself on his intelligence.  The world does have an interesting sense of humor, or a sense of irony. 


My relationship with my dad has been an interesting one.  Growing up, he was my hero: the great protector/consoler.  He was the one to come around after my mother’s angry torrent had exploded within the household – consoling and comforting all who had been in her path.  So, clearly as a kid, I adored him.  It wasn’t until my teenage years when I started realizing that he and I had extremely different views about people, society and politics.  I also started noticing the ways he could be deeply critical, albeit in a much quieter way than my mother. 


When I graduated from law school/graduate school, he wrote me a card saying, “You now have more initials after your name, than the rest of us combined.  You can stop now.”  And, that sentence embodies my relationship with my father: loving, supportive and humorous with an edge of criticism.  Right before dad had the stroke, he had unfortunately been prone to much propaganda, and our political views were about as far apart as two people could be within the US.  We did our best to never talk about it because it was a source of much frustration on both of our parts. 

Since he had his stroke, however, our relationship has changed again.  My sister calls him our “new dad.”  He does not remember much of his childhood or mine.  Although, every once in a while, he’ll surprise me with something.  He used to sing a little British rhyme to us when we were kids.  If any of us starts the song, he is able to finish it.  Every once in a while, we’ll be driving, and he’ll remember something about the place.  I took him to a park one day, with numerous tables and chairs in one of the sheltered picnic areas.  He calculated how many people could sit in there (about 220) based on one table with chairs that was set up.  One day I was visiting, and he introduced me by name to the front desk staff.  I almost fell over.  Other days, he thought I was his wife or his sister. 


I started thinking today as we were eating lunch, that maybe we should all live the way my father does. I got us a dessert to share. One thing with dad now is that it is never easy to know what he is going to like or dislike. The food he used to like before his stroke is not necessarily the food he wants now. Today, in fact, I got him a beer.  He loved beer before. 

Most of the time now, he is quite happy with a beer.  Today – nope.  He didn’t want it.  One thing consistently likes now is dessert.  So, today, I ordered a piece of chocolate cake.  He took a bite, and then looked conspiratorially at me – as if we were sharing some state secret, and then grinned.  I thought of the lessons I have learned from him since his stroke. 


The first lesson I learned is to live simply.  Dad was never one to have a ton of belongings.  Now, he has very little.  Usually, I don’t think he cares (although now he thinks people are stealing things – so he hides them).  My take away – if I have nothing, than I won’t worry that anyone is stealing anything from me.  You can’t take any of the belongings with you when you die anyway.  Might as well keep it simple. 


Second – go ahead and enjoy the dessert.  Life is short.  We never know how long we have.  We might as well eat ice cream and cake and enjoy them.  Now – don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean JUST eat cake.  Moderation is still important.  Just don’t prevent yourself all together.  My father never ate desserts prior to his stroke.  It appears to bring him much joy now.

Get exercise into your day.  My father has always been active.  My mother told me that when he was in his forties, a doctor told him that he had arthritis so badly, that he may not walk by mid-fifties.  He apparently took that as a wake-up call.  Every morning growing up, he would be out jogging at some ungodly hour.  In fact, I remember he ran 6 miles for his sixtieth birthday, although most of his runs were one to two miles.  But, even now, he is very concerned that he get in a walk or two every day.  I can see that it helps his mood and his body.  He is in far better shape than people twenty years his junior. 


Keep people around that you love and trust, and forget everyone else.  Like I said earlier, my father may not have any idea about what my name is.  But, he knows that he knows me and that I’m important to him.  I can see his face relax when I come in.  There may come a day when he doesn’t, but right now, the people who are closest to him are recognizable to him.  He has some people who come visit him who are long-time friends of his.  He often does not know their name (and sometimes, he does not remember them at all); but, when he relaxes and feels comfortable, he remembers them.  He has said their names to me when he isn’t specifically asked who they are. 


You can think better when your stress level is lower.  One thing I have noticed with dad, he remembers a lot more when he isn’t pressed to remember.  If I ask him if he knows who I am, he has never come up with my name or my relation to him.  But, in times when I haven’t asked him, he has come up with my name.  This is the same for almost any information.  If I press him, he won’t know the answer.  But, given some latitude, he does fairly well. 

People do so much better when they feel good about themselves.   When my father was in rehab after his stroke, he had a shared room.  My dad’s roommate (whom I believe also had a stroke) was being visited by his daughter.  The daughter kept saying, “dad – I’m so proud of you!  You’re really doing great.”  I was so taken with that – because if one believes in positive psychology (and I am a firm believer) than one knows that a brain that is positive functions better than a brain that is neutral or negative.  While I watched him out of the corner of my eye, I could see him brighten at her words, and I was touched.  I have tried to use it on my dad while I’m visiting, and it works!  I have told him multiple times that I’m really proud of him and how hard he has worked.  It’s magic.  Every time, he perks up.  There have been days when I got there, and he was in a very bad mood.  Almost every time, when I start to tell him that I’m really proud of him, it turns his mood around (and – this isn’t a lie.  I am really proud of him.  Coming back from a stroke is no easy feat at any age – let alone at 90!).


Also, keep your mind sharp.  One thing with my dad – he never retired.  When I asked him why, he would say, “when people retire, they die because they don’t feel they have a purpose.”  Honestly, there is something to that.  I mean – I think many of us can find purpose outside of work – but, doing something to stay engaged and involved socially and intellectually is important.  Now, he obviously isn’t going to work any more.  But, play checkers with him!  It may take ten minutes for him to complete a move, but, he loves strategizing.  It’s so fun to watch.

And – finally – and this might be obvious – but, let things go.  Move on.  As I said, I’ve gotten in to see dad, and he has been in a terrible mood.  This is often because he feels something isn’t going well or he often feels like he is forgetting something important.  I often think about how distressing it must feel to not remember much about your life or the people around you.  But, if I can distract him long enough with something else, then it can change everything for him.  But, that has gotten me thinking about life.  One thing that I’ve talked to many clients about is forgiveness.  Forgiveness towards someone who abused them, bullied them, assaulted them, et cetera.  People often think that forgiveness is for the person we are forgiving.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I think forgiveness is for us.  Until we forgive, our hearts and minds might still be caught up in whatever horror we experienced in the past.  As long as that is the case, that person still has power over us.  But, when we truly forgive the person (and – I’m not at all suggesting that in general this is an easy process – so, please don’t take these words to mean something I’m not intending), we’re truly free.  Unlike my father, we’ll probably never forget.  But, forgiveness means we aren’t burdened with it in the same way.  Maybe I’ll explore this in another post – as this one is getting long – but – forgiveness and letting go of prior pains and complaints can be completely cathartic. 


So – in short:  to be happy – live simply, focus on the positive, keep your mind and body active, keep loved ones close and eat cake. 

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