December 23, 2011

7 Things My Dad Taught Me

10 years ago this week, my dad, Peter Czernek, lost his life to cancer. He was 59 years old, and I was 23.

Circa 1971. My parents were awesome.

The advice that parents dispense to teenagers and young adults often seems like wasted breath. After all, young people already know everything. I certainly did. But somewhere on the way to real adulthood, something happens. We learn to empathize with our parents. We begin to understand their advice, and we wish we had listened. We realize they have been wiser all along than we ever gave them credit for being.

Unfortunately for me, that realization began in the last months of my dad's life, and by the time I realized how smart he had been, he was gone. I can no longer seek his advice on the challenges I'm facing. All I can do is hold on to the lessons I learned from him, while time moves us ever farther apart.

Since I can't just call my dad on the phone, I spend a lot of time replaying conversations and stories in my mind, wrapping old lessons and stories in the new context of my own world.

Here are a few of his lessons that I try to carry with me today:

1. You can change everything about your life. My parents were born in Poland during World War II, and they grew up in a Communist regime where their future prospects were rather bleak. My dad refused to accept his fate, posed as a spy for the Polish government, and fled the country with my somewhat reluctant mother in tow. Whenever I feel paralyzed by inertia, I think of how my dad took that leap of faith, knowing that the stakes were high but the payoff was worth it. Whenever I feel disappointed in myself and hopelessly anchored to my past, I think of the journeys of transformation in my family's history and I remember that anything is possible.

2. Value people more than money. When my dad first started seeing patients in his private practice, he was uncomfortable accepting money from them. My mom tells a story of a man who came to my father's office with serious symptoms; not only did my dad refuse to accept payment, he paid for the man's taxi to the hospital and gave him some extra cash for good measure. My dad's generosity grew as he built relationships with people; he sent money to his family in Poland, helped fellow immigrants get on their feet in America, and even helped one friend pay for a house.

3. Invest in yourself. I didn't understand this one when I was younger. My education and career were of utmost importance to my dad, and I often resented the pressure to achieve and compete. I thought it was about status and materialism. I fought him tooth and nail on his insistence that I get an advanced degree in my early 20s, before I'd even decided on a "grown-up" career. Now I understand that he wanted me to have the same freedom that he had, that if I could comfortably provide for myself and my family, I'd have the ability to pursue #2.

4. Never stop learning. My dad never went far without a book. On summer days, he'd sit on the patio with a medical textbook in one hand, a highlighter in the other, and a leaf on his nose to stave off sunburn. He read for pleasure, but he also read with purpose. He read medical books because he found them fascinating. He read 19th century British novels because he loved the way they used the English language. He read biographies of famous Americans because he wanted to know the history of his adopted homeland. He continued studying my SAT vocabulary flashcards long after I was in college, and if I shared a new word with him, he'd want the whole etymology: Was it a Latin or Greek root? Was it related to similar-sounding words?

5. Find meaning in your work, and bring your whole self to what you do. My dad wasn't just a doctor from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday. His career was as essential part of his very being. I always wanted to be like him, and it was hard to go through my 20s without feeling a calling to a specific career. I've since come to realize that I don't need to be a doctor, or be any single "thing" to follow in his footsteps. By turning my energy toward the practice of employee engagement, unlocking the magic that people feel when their personal goals and professional growth align, I feel like I'm able to continue his legacy and apply it to the corporate setting where I feel most at home.

6. To connect with people, listen to their stories. My dad spent most of his career working at the V.A. Hospital, and many of his patients were World War II veterans. He once told me the secret to his success: He made a point of personally thanking his patients for helping to liberate Europe, and he was never too busy to listen to a war story. Everyone has a story to tell, and being attuned to and interested in those stories can unlock deeper connections to other people and to the world.

7. Make time for travel. In the days before Google Maps and GPS, my dad would spend weeks preparing for our vacations by poring over travel brochures, atlases, and encyclopedias. When we would travel to new places, he would first study a place, its history, geography, and culture. Once there, he would make us listen to local radio stations and eat at restaurants that offered local flavor. I remember a trip through South Dakota, listening to Native American drumming on the radio and eating at a restaurant that served buffalo, worrying that he had pushed my comfort-loving mom to her breaking point. I loved those trips, and I internalized this message: The world is bigger than the tiny piece of it that is familiar to me, and there's much joy to be found in discovering its diversity.

There are many more lessons, and I'm continually trying to apply my memory of his wisdom to my own experiences, asking myself what he might say or do in my situation.

I'll admit, I sometimes feel jealous of people my age and older with two living parents. I sometimes feel it is unfair that I didn't get to share my adulthood with my dad, and he didn't get to meet his grandchildren.

But all in all, my family was incredibly blessed to have the years with him that we did. He gave us all many, many gifts in those years. Some of them, I'm still unwrapping.

1 comment:

Mel said...

Your Dad sounded like a great man. What a sweet post!