My father died suddenly on St. Patrick’s Day 1996. As if only yesterday, I vividly remember the call from my mother driving in-route to Nashville behind the ambulance that carried my critically injured father. She felt confident I should forego my weekend plans and get home quickly as possible. Hours later I took my seat on the plane to the news he was officially gone.
I always knew he was a well-respected man in our rural Tennessee town, but I never appreciated the magnitude of their admiration until his funeral. The director informed me afterwards it was the second highest attended burial service in all his years of business, second only to the death of twin children.
If pressed to summarize why my father had this reputation it was honor. The man carried an air of nobility and virtue that I have spent almost two decades trying to imitate. He was a man of character and principle others seemed forcefully drawn towards. By his mere presence one knew this was no ordinary individual. Some may view all of this as the biased opinions of a wide-eyed schoolboy in awe of his demi-God father who seemed without blemish; but the fact is he had a crystal clear understanding of right and wrong, foreign by today’s standards, which he tried to instill in my sister and I.
My attempts to live up to his seemingly spotless character have landed short more than I care to admit. It appears that without his long reaching shadow I’m more apt to cut corners, take the easy way, then justify all of it. Without being a mere phone call away from ‘setting me straight’ I often act as if I’m accountable to no one. I’d be mortified to look him in the eye today and explain many of my life choices and the regrets that ensued. He was a man I never wanted to disappoint.
My dad left colossal shoes to fill that, as a father, I am only now beginning to really appreciate. While I may have inherited his eyes I missed out on much of his upright stature, which leaves me to wonder if I’ll ever be as effective in preparing my children to live by a higher standard.
And in that moment we realize this parenting thing isn’t a dress rehearsal but instead a one-night-only show with a life hanging in the balance.
The moment they burst forth from the womb parents coach their children in the nuances of the right and wrong way to do things. “Don’t stick your finger in that electrical socket”, “Play nice with others”, “Share your toys”. We quickly become master craftsmen molding our kids into the productive citizens Uncle Sam wants and other people really like. And while this role is not without frustrations it stays relatively pain free – for a while.
But eventually the day comes when our kids, after being asked why the acted in this way or did that thing, look at us dead in the eye and proclaim “Because you do!” And it’s in that moment we realize this whole parenting thing isn’t a dress rehearsal, but a one-night-only show with a life hanging in the balance; and all that time spent hiding our own behaviors behind our children’s youth and naivety are suddenly and emphatically over. They are indeed paying attention.
As I reflect on the influence my father had on me and more importantly why he had it I’m left with the realization that, more than any other man I’ve known since, my dad walked the talk. In other words, he lived what he preached. This leads me to believe that if I’m to properly teach my children the traits of honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity I have no other option but to possess these same qualities myself and demonstrate them daily. If I want my children to be the kind of adults others are drawn to simply because of their character I must by default work to be that very same person. What other way is there to raise morally upstanding children unless I’m prepared to be morally upstanding myself – no matter the pain involved?
But today there seems to be this logic in parenting that because I’m the adult this automatically gives me carte blanche to behave contradictory to what I hope and expect from my children - all under this guise of boundaries. Or put another way, parenting by “do as I say, not as I do” because I’m an adult and can handle it. When I think about this I know of few notions more utterly selfish or exceedingly egotistical. Because the fact of the matter is this, how can I expect my children not to eat from the forbidden tree – if they see me eating the apple first?