Last week, we buried my father, Joseph Caprino, in upstate NY where I grew up and where he lived for 50 years with my mother. Dad died at 92 of prostate cancer and suffered from dementia. It’s been a very hard several years for him and for my mother in her care of him, during which time he also suffered from scoliosis and spinal stenosis and diabetes, and couldn’t stand erect or walk without assistance.
Watching Dad’s decline was incredibly painful for all who knew him. He went from a vibrant, brilliant, fun-loving and incredibly active individual who served in WWII as Captain of the 656th Tank Destroyer Battalion, was an avid golfer, and earned 7 patents in silicone rubber technology. In his last year, he lost his ability to reason and move about, and became dependent solely on the love and care of my mother and the amazing volunteers and staff at the Joan Nicole Prince Home who tended to him tirelessly during the last three months of his life. (Here’s more about Dad’s life.)
My mother and I sat with Dad for several hours after he passed, waiting for the funeral home to come and collect his body. During that time, I had the chance to reflect in a new way on my father’s life and impact on me. I experienced a myriad of thoughts and feelings that my normal, crazy-busy life and work didn’t allow me to focus on. I thought about life, death, meaning and purpose, regrets, joy, what makes life worth living and what I want to leave behind. I had the stunning realization then that no matter how “prepared” you think you are for the loss of a beloved, you’re simply not. You have to learn and experience through time just how to adjust to being who you are in the physical absence of this individual who helped shaped you into being. The Yiddish proverb “Man plans and God laughs” rings very true to me these days. My friend Jean shared, “Adjusting to the loss of a loved one is a very difficult thing until the memories are fully rooted in the place where our loved ones once were.” So true.
There are some vitally important lessons I learned from being Dad’s child, and from observing how he lived his life, even through his suffering at the end:
1. Live so you have no regrets
The experience of losing Dad helped me realize even more clearly how important it is to live your life in a way that you will not regret, bemoan and wish you had done things differently. Through each choice he made – in his words, deeds, and beliefs — Dad lived each day to the fullest (we called him the “funster”), embracing each moment as a way to get the most out of life. I believe he would say now that he had no regrets. I think too that he knows he always did his best, even if that “best” fell short of what others thought he was capable of. That inspires me – I have a new rule that I’m going to stick to with fierce commitment: “I promise to live each day so that I have no regrets.” How to do that? I’m going to try to always do my very best, forgive myself when I fall down, and let my Highest Self shape my actions.
2. Be impeccable with your word
The fabulous book The Four Agreements shares the rule “Be Impeccable with your word” as a core agreement we need to make with ourselves in order to live fully, joyfully, lovingly and meaningfully. Dad followed this principle to the letter. I kid you not when I say that in my 52 years, I never heard him speak ill of another. I remember numerous times when I was child coming home from our Greek church services on Sunday in the car, when my sister and I would be ridiculing something we didn’t like, Dad would say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” That was his way of telling us to please stop tearing others down.
Since I read The Four Agreements (which was a true life-changer for me), I have tried to be impeccable with my word – to not “sin” against myself and others with my words. Dad paved the way for me to understand that our words can be used as a salve for the soul, or as weapons of destruction. I choose the former.
3. The lasting power of sweet, gentle kindness
My dear friend Helen shared with me when she learned that Dad had died:
“Kathy, I am so sorry about your dad. I remember him as a truly original character who was so friendly and funny and took me in like his daughter’s best friend at the airport on our way to London. What a sweetie. I am sorry for your loss.”
Helen and I met in the JFK airport when we were 20 years old, on the way to our year abroad program in London. We’ve been friends ever since, and I never knew she experienced Dad that way or remembered those moments so long ago, and am so grateful to know it now.
There was a gentle sweetness and openness about Dad always, even when he said embarrassing things to my friends and I wanted to hide (like, “Hi Sally, you married yet?”). Everyone loved him despite his flaws. He never meant ill or harm, and being with him felt to most people like being embraced in a huge, warm bear hug of love and acceptance.
In our world today, and in my work in the media in particular, I see how we’ve let so much cruelty, snarkiness, judgment, hatred, cynicism and negatively creep into every moment of our lives. The news, the media, in our pop culture, we’re bombarded by negativity, fear, pain and suffering.
Call me crazy, but I’d rather focus on gentleness, kindness, love and compassion – in the world around me and in what I choose to let into my sphere. I opt to focus my work and shine my light on people who are changing our world for the better, making their impact in a positive, caring way.
I know this to be true (and it was reinforced in my therapy training) – what you focus on truly expands and grows, and you can indeed shape your experience of happiness, joy and fulfillment with committed, conscious action, despite your environment and genetics. In honor of Dad, I commit to expanding my experience of goodness, love, joy and exuberant fun, just as he did.
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This Memorial Day weekend, I’d ask you to bring to mind someone who has shaped your life positively. What did they teach you and how have they influenced your growth? Write a blog post about it, share a Facebook post, and shine a light on their lessons (and share them here if you would!).
Let’s do one thing today that will honor their memory and make our lives more joyful and meaningful. Let’s remember those who brought happiness and positivity into our world.
Happy Memorial Day to you, my friends.
(Please take a moment too to read about the amazing Joan Nicole Prince Home that cared so lovingly for my dad in his final weeks. Your donations to the home, in honor of all those who could benefit from hospice care at the end of their lives, would be ever so deeply appreciated.)