Not long ago, I asked my father for his most important life advice. My first question was: ‘What’s the key to a lasting happy relationship?’
He answered: ‘Find someone you can laugh with and cry with, whom you love and respect, and who loves and respects you in return.’
Then I asked him: ‘And what’s the key to a happy and fulfilling working life?’
And he answered: ‘Work with people you can laugh with and complain with, whom you love and respect, and who love and respect you in return.’ (He always said the word ‘complain’ with a mischievous grin.)
And a third time I asked him: ‘And what’s the key to a happy and fulfilling life as a whole?’
And he answered: ‘Fill your life with people you can laugh with, cry with and complain with, whom you love and respect, and who love and respect you in return.’
That’s exactly how he lived his life. Even during his last few days in hospital, he had the nurses in the palm of his hand. As soon as a nurse walked in he would sit up and say: ‘You’re in danger!’ She would look back aghast – and in a grave voice he would explain: ‘You’re so lovely that men will fight over you. You’re going to have to learn to deal with that.’
His other piece of worldly advice was, ‘Rules are meant to be considered, not blindly followed. Always think for yourself.’
My father passed away peacefully in his sleep on 6th March 2019. It was the saddest day of my life. And each day since has been the saddest day of my life.
As I reflect on his words, they reveal an even greater depth than I first realised. To be able to laugh, ‘complain’ and cry with people means to be able to feel our feelings and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. His passing would not be so heartbreakingly painful if our relationship hadn’t brought an equal measure of joy. Pain is the price we pay for truly connecting with each other. Our lives would be empty and meaningless if we had no one whose death would bring us intense sorrow.
As for my father’s advice about thinking for myself, I’m reminded of the words of psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin: Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.’
In today’s world, to think for ourselves is to value kindness over competitive advantage, people over profit, and quality over quantity. The irony is that if we valued kindness, connection and quality, everything else we seek would follow.
If there was one word to describe my father it would be ‘kind’. As his brain started to falter, so did his motivation to do things. But four magic words worked a spell on him every time. Those words were: ‘Can you help me?’
If I said to him, ‘Let’s go shopping’ he’d answer, ‘No, I’m too old’. But if I asked, ‘Can you help me do the shopping?’ he would immediately jump up to assist. If a carer asked him if he’d like to go for a walk, he’d reply he was too tired. But if she asked him to help her post a letter, his tiredness would be supplanted by his desire to help.
His physical presence is no longer with me. But his words will remain with me forever: ‘Kindness is the healthiest of all habits. And like any other habit, you need to practise it every day to maintain it.’