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Today, August 16, 2017, is the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. I remember this day one year ago, each hour of it, with painful clarity. I was nearly 3,000 miles away in my home in Oakland, California as my father was passing from life to death in a hospital room in Annapolis, Maryland, too far a distance for me to arrive in time for his final hour to say goodbye. But we had said our goodbyes just weeks before and many times before that. And so I awaited word from my siblings until that final hour came. When he breathed his last, I felt the pain of his long illness lift away, just the way the summer fog lifted that morning, the sun stretching its arms through grey puffs of clouds. Away he drifted, taking with him a lifetime of love and labor, memories and moments that would never become again.
I often reflect on the world that my father grew up in and the world today that he left behind. As a child, he grew up at a time when Nazism ran rampant in Europe, trampling his country of origin (Poland), threatening to destroy all that is good in the world in the name of hatred, ethnic cleansing and extreme ideology. He witnessed racial and systemic violence here in the U.S. in his adulthood. He watched as oppressed people and oppressed genders struggled to be recognized. He saw the world and all its evil and all its good through the many decades of his life, and did his best to counter it by living an honest life, raising a family, helping others where he saw opportunity.
I don’t know much about the nuances of my father’s political views except that he voted both as a Republican and Democrat in various U.S. elections over the years, depending on the circumstances. Which ones he voted as which, I’m not entirely sure. We never talked politics in my home growing up. But my father taught me to love and respect and care for others no matter what a person’s race or religion or sexual orientation was. He and my mother infused those values in me that I hold to today. Whether he fully understood another individual or not, loving them was non-negotiable.
I am fortunate today to live in one of the most diverse cities in the country, perhaps even the world. I can walk down my street on any given day and be greeted with the faces of people who look nothing like me and who remind me that my life and my experiences can be welcomed while they may be still very different from their own. It’s not paradise. We have many, many problems and tensions and challenges in my town. But it doesn’t stop me from giving thanks each time I encounter a brother or sister on the street, dressed differently from me, perhaps with hair and skin and eyes and cheeks so different from me. We are united as living, breathing beings in a living, breathing, mysterious world. We are human, trying to navigate this human experience of ours that we share together. Love is still non-negotiable. I don’t even know how else to be.
But let’s be honest, there are a lot of human beings in this world whose intentions are not good, even downright evil. Nelson Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” But how does one disarm hate once it has been learned, especially when there may be threads of it hidden in our own sub-conscious, picked up along the paths of our lives when we were wronged by another? I do believe people can be taught to love, but it certainly becomes harder to teach the longer they have allowed hatred to set up home in their hearts.
What would my father think of the world and of this country he loved so much if he were alive today, one year later? What would his reaction be to seeing our divisions, clashes between people that he witnessed in decades past, repeating again as though we’d never made progress, never learned our lessons from the first time they’d happened in our history? What would he think of Nazis marching through Charlottesville, Virginia when he might have thought Nazism had been destroyed in the wars that were fought in his childhood? What would he, a veteran of the Korean War, think of the threats of nuclear war with North Korea? How would he, the son of immigrants, feel about the way immigrants in this country are being treated? What would he say as he watched this U.S. president embarrass the dignity of his high office with his disgraceful words, inept platitudes, and hateful rhetoric that threatens to put us all at the brink of war?
Today as I remember my dad, I imagine he’d be wondering why we as a human race hadn’t figured some of this out for better already. I can see him in my mind’s eye, shaking his head, pursing his lips together, closing his soft eyes. And in his quiet strength-like-a-bull manner, he’d tell me not to stand for any of the nonsense. He’d remind me to be vigilant, guard against hate of any kind, welcome the stranger, stand up for those who are hurting, and counter every instance of hatred with acts of unity and love. And he’d do it all with the fewest words possible and in the least lofty of sentiments. But the message would be conveyed.
Love fiercely. That’s really how he was. I can’t purport to say that love will solve all our complicated problems, but that’s the attitude I take with me in these dark and troubled times, thanks to lessons learned from Dad.
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August 16, 2017