My Dad’s lessons on how to love
The day before my dad had a stroke, he described the air as delicious. It was almost dusk and the sky was pale pink. We jogged along the irrigation canals in West El Paso, and the Franklin Mountains glowed a specific magenta glow that only happens on certain days for a minute or two. We talked a little. He pointed to a yellow ladder leaning on a shed; that’s the point where he normally turned to head home. White cranes flew a couple yards down whenever we got too close to them and dogs barked at us behind their fences. Dad breathed deeply; we turned around at the ladder and jogged back.
It’s been almost six months since he died, and I’m beginning to wrap my head around the fact of it. When I use the bathroom where it happened, I no longer see him lying there. Except when I feel guilty for not seeing him, and then I make myself call up the exact position of his body, and how I propped up his head with pillows and told him “You’re OK!” while we waited for the ambulance. I sometimes shudder and try to stop the memory, or sometimes jump ahead to the hospital a couple weeks later. I try to convince myself: this really happened.
The other day at the cemetery, someone left the sprinklers on in the pouring rain. We cried at his grave, my stepmom and my brother and I. The mountains were almost invisible behind all the layers of liquid.
Sometimes I try to relive the moment when I said goodbye to him before we took him off life support. It was the afternoon of New Years Eve, and we thought he might die as soon as the intubator came out. We didn’t know then that we were lucky to be in his presence, that soon hospitals wouldn’t allow family members anymore.
I promised him that I would do my best to live in his example. I think I asked him to keep an eye on me. Or maybe I didn’t, because I didn’t want to trap him on Earth? I don’t remember most what I asked, promised, or said. I wish memory worked differently. I’m already forgetting the way it felt to hug him, or how tall he was in relation to me, or how his ears look: little things that fill in the gaps in the picture.
Of course I remember the sound of his chuckle, of course I remember the way he gulped coffee. I see him in my mind’s eye when I gulp coffee and think, how many of my gestures are from him? I remember we put Times Square on the hospital room TV that night and waited for midnight. We prayed a rosary and around 12:30 everyone left; I stayed to sleep on the chair in Dad’s hospital room. I thought, maybe this is the last night I’ll sleep next to him. It was.
I used to sleep beside him a lot as a kid, on the couch. When I was 5 or 6, Dad thought it was time for me to be more independent from my older sister Anna. She and I had always shared a room, but dad decided I should take his bedroom. He started sleeping on the living room couch, so that I could have the autonomy of a bedroom all to myself.
Every night he would tuck me in bed upstairs, sing me lullabies, and give me a little mug of water. I’d lay there in the dark when he closed the door, waiting for as long as I could stand it. I’d imagine how long was long enough to have plausibly fallen asleep and then woken from a bad dream. Then I’d walk downstairs and ask him if I could sleep on the couch too. He never said no. Maybe that’s why being a touring musician isn’t so hard for me; I’ve always loved sleeping on couches.
When I was saying goodbye to him, I remember that I promised to try to live in his example. I remember that I told him I’d be OK, I’d be solid. I wouldn’t freak out or lose my mind or be destructive or give in to depression. I’d do my best to be like him. Being like him seems almost as incomprehensible as the fact of his death. He was so good. How to be like him? One time I asked him, “Don’t you ever feel moody? Aren’t you ever in a bad mood?” He said, “Not really” and I groaned in exasperation.
I thought I’d write this as a way to teach myself how to be more like him, in steps. Or to try to narrow in on what it was that made him such an impossibly wonderful person to be around. Why is it that I idolized him so? What are the qualities that made him so universally revered, not just by me, but it seems like by everyone who knew him. Why do I wish more people were like him, and how can they be?
I set out to write this in an effort to list, categorize, and document the depth and radiance of my Dad’s style of love. I already know I will fail. I still think it’s probably a worthwhile mission.
How to love, in the style of Frank Kladzyk:
1. Accept people as they are
My siblings and I are incredibly lucky to have had a parent who never projected ideas of who we *should* be onto us. I think the only thing he thought we should be was virtuous. I sometimes worried that he was judging my life choices merely because it seemed like such a normal parent thing to do. But no, he never did. He never made me feel that I had to be anything other than myself. And the message from him was always that I was enough, family was everything, love was the key.
I remember one time he and I were driving along the highway in Michigan, the windows down and Lake Huron stretching along beside us. It was summer and we were on ice cream patrol. I think I was playing him some new songs of mine, trying to get his opinion. I asked him, “Dad, are you disappointed in me? I went to grad school, I did the whole thing, got a master’s. And now I’m in NYC trying to be an artist. I have no savings. I don’t even have an apartment. Are you disappointed that I chose this path?”
Dad didn’t pause to think about it. He responded immediately, “When I was your age I was living in my car. You’re doing fine.” Although he always encouraged me, he never pushed me, and it was ok if it took me a while to find my way. It was OK to enjoy the journey and not focus too much on the destination.
2. Chew vewwy, vewwy slowly
Dad ate so slow! He loved a good meal. And he loved a snack that he could gradually eat through the course of a day, or maybe even over three or four days. He loved sitting in the sun. He loved mowing the lawn. He loved putting his feet on his desk, drinking a dirty gin martini with three olives, and watching sports. He loved the stuff of this Earth. He savored it.
He ate so slowly that he was often still there at the table long after any semblance of dessert was gone. Each bite he took, he selected carefully. Each bite he took, he chewed slowly. Sometimes he’d pause with the bite ready on his fork, and just contemplate it for a while. I can’t recall any meal that he didn’t comment on or acknowledge. He prayed quickly, he ate slowly.
Dad didn’t like to waste things. He didn’t like to throw things away. He took it to a somewhat extreme degree, and his desk drawers were truly wild places. But at the same time, he found joy in every little mundane part of life that is typically overlooked. He really milked it, the small things in life. I feel like all of this sounds cliché, but it’s only because I’m not doing a good job of conveying how profound it is to deeply and fully cherish a perfect bite of chili with some crumbled Cheezits on top.
3. Listen (and ask too many questions)
Phone calls with Dad were epic. You thought they were done, you had already said goodbye and I love you, but really it was just the beginning. All the sudden Dad would attack with seven or eight questions in a row, strung together in quick succession. He needed to know what you had for breakfast and how is the van running and do you have any shows coming up and how are your roommates? What’s the weather like over there? Are you walking? Where are you right now? Aha! The conversation was just beginning! Dad wanted to know about all the things that actually matter, the practicalities that help life to chug along effectively and the feelingtones that accompany them. He asked the right questions and he fully listened to the response. I always felt heard, empathized with, and considered comprehensively.
He didn’t reserve this style of communication for his children. He could be guilty of spontaneous question attacks at the grocery store, the hotel, or the bank. As a bystander it was sometimes annoying. But the thing he did so effectively was that he made people feel seen. And he found subtle ways to do it all the time. When we would check into a hotel, it was rare for him to not use the person’s name who was checking us in.
It was rare for him not to ask how the night was going. Were they very busy? Had Lynda just started her shift or was she almost done? He probably sounds really annoying — but he was empathetic enough to detect when people didn’t feel like talking, and open enough to give people an opportunity to talk when they did.
Listening is a baseline expression of love. When you love someone, you care enough to step inside their experience. Listening wholly and asking good questions is an effective way to do this.
4. Don’t take yourself too seriously
Being there for someone, really being there for them, requires humility. It requires a noble and steadfast soul. And sometimes it requires fake brown buck teeth and a bad wig. Dad was consistently silly and it made everything better. He had a lot of characters (the talent scout was a favorite of mine), and did not mind being the brunt of the joke. Being light and open and unabashedly goofy does things beyond making people chuckle. It lets people know that it’s ok to not be perfect. It sends a message that armor isn’t necessary. It tickles the air and gives stale tension a little shake.
Dad loved to shake the air with laughter, and was good at inviting others to join in.
5. Be gentle with all creatures, and walk around barefoot
My Dad could often be found laying on the floor with Gigi and Blas, the two geriatric miniature poodles who rule the house. He was good at playing and spontaneously showing care. I’m so grateful that I grew up in a household where there never needed to be a reason for a hug. Everyday expressions of affection for each other, for the hummingbirds outside the window, for the beauty of plants; those expressions were as normal as breathing.
Dad often walked around barefoot; I think he liked to feel everything. He was pretty mystical, even though he didn’t talk about it much. I suspect his mysticism was connected to the glory of existence, the unceasing wonder of life on earth. Without ever having to say anything about it, Dad cultivated this sensibility in my siblings and I: a tenderness that borders on sentimental, and a willingness to approach life with the whimsy of a little kid. It made everything feel like magic, seeing the world in this way. It still does — I can sense his influence, witnessing the miraculous wherever I go.
6. Stay positive
I said it before, he was always in a good mood. I mean that’s not true, every so often he was grumpy. But it was so rare! And the thing was, his baseline “good mood” was way beyond what we would think of as a normal human positive mood range. He was always smiling, his eyes twinkled, and he was unceasingly curious.
People who are in a good mood are fun to hang out with (duh). But Dad was really fun, and fun is a feedback loop. He was good at initiating it and getting the feedback loop to whir and buzz at a delightful pace. I mentioned how silly he could be, that without warning he could waltz into the room with a new persona just to try to make you laugh, but it was also deeper than that. He was perceptive of people on a fundamental level, and always seemed able to transform moods around him positively. He showed love through joy, and showed joy through love. That was a feedback loop too.
When he had negative thoughts about people or things, he kept them to himself. I can scarcely recall any time that he ever had a bad word to say about anyone. Well, except Trump. He didn’t complain, he didn’t brood. He was very up, light, effervescent. And it’s a contagious thing. This is maybe the hardest of all the steps too, to always stay positive. I’m going to have to keep working on it, probably for the rest of my life.
Inconclusively in conclusion
Reading back through my list here, I am overwhelmed by how incomplete it is, by how many other ways he found to show, live, and share love every day. Not just with loved ones, but with everyone. I guess I can be thankful that, because of my Dad’s lessons, I don’t believe I have to be perfect in order to be worthy of love. This essay doesn’t have to be perfect either, and it’s not. But hopefully it’s a nice window into an extraordinary person.
I do remember one thing I said to him at the hospital when I was saying goodbye. I said, “I love you forever.” And the nice thing is that I’m still able to express and articulate my love for him, even though he’s no longer on Earth. I am a living expression of his love, and all the ripples outward from him, from me, from my family, those are all expressions of his love. And they will keep rippling outward, passing through me to someone else to someone else in a forever feedback loop of love.
I don’t know how to end this essay, because I know it’s incomplete. But I hope that you, reader, have found a nice morsel to chew on here. Or perhaps when you finish reading this, you might walk barefoot outside, see a hummingbird, and contemplate the miracle of its existence. Maybe you’ll go hug your Dad. If you can, I hope you will.
Cover photo: Frank Kladzyk and his granddaughter, Marcella. (Photo by Anna Kladzyk.)