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Choosing joy of life over fear of mortality

September 25, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 25, 2019

Our kids are getting older. Now 10 and 13, our Adam and Zoe fill our lives with more joy than I ever imagined could be true before I became a father. As my wife Lori and I watch them mature and widen both their experiences and horizons, it’s a breath-taking honor to be their father.

Of course, we too are getting older. I confess to having thought more about mortality — my mortality — in the few years since reaching the age of 50, than in the previous half-century. At times I feel profound sadness and grief, not just at the thought of my own death (which is hopefully far away) but, even more, from acknowledging that one day I will no longer be physically part of Zoe’s and Adam’s life, nor they part of mine.

We deeply and genuinely enjoy being together as a family. When we are apart, which is not often, we all feel that something is amiss, and when we reunite, whether at the end of the day or when one of us returns from an outing or travel, we are delighted to be together once again. As a family, we have come to accept this being together, being apart and being together, as the natural rhythm of our lives. But, ultimately, it’s the overwhelming fear of not being together again that hurts me the most.

Increasingly, I have been wrestling with these inner tensions, as Zoe and Adam rapidly age, and as I listen to Lori, with feelings of helplessness, as she experiences similar angst. So, it was a blessing to have recently heard thoughtful words from a family elder, which have provided me fresh insight. At a family gathering, following the lively energy of Happy Hour, replete with much wine and nosh, and the excitement which accompanies a Labor Day barbeque, when New Englander’s cling to denial about summer’s end, I sat in the growing quiet of the evening.

Next to me was a family member, nearly my father’s age, who was recovering from complicated and painful surgery to remove cancerous tumors from this body. I have come to know and respect him as a private man, publicly reserved with his thoughts and emotions, and with whom, therefore, our conversations have tended to be matter of fact.

I noticed a softness in his eyes and a gentleness in his demeanor. Following my curiosity, I asked him, “How have you dealt with the difficulty of your recovery?” Without hesitation he said, “It is what it is. And, I’m getting better.”

I’ve not warmed to this trending phrase, “It is what it is,” another cliché that crowds our daily conversation and covers over opportunities for genuine connection. But, in this case, seamlessly paired with the phrase, “And, I’m getting better,” I heard both acceptance and empowerment, not the helpless resignation I tend to associate with “It is what it is.”

Moved by these simple words and his genuine sentiment, I sense in myself growing acceptance with an uncomfortable truth of fatherhood. I cannot control that Zoe and Adam are aging, that one day they will take flight and then soar high and far, nor that Lori and I are growing older — it is what it is. But I can practice redirecting my attention to the joy of fatherhood, marriage and family, and to the realization that, in so many ways — it keeps getting better.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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