Every other week, Paul Ollinger investigates how redefining success can help us lead better lives.
My dad died the other day. He left this world while napping in his favorite recliner surrounded by his children. He was 93.
Despite my love and commitment to my father, I have shed zero tears over his passing. I promise I’m not an unfeeling monster (I cried at least once when I took my daughter to see Wicked). It’s just that, rather than sadness, I have found myself overcome with a profound sense of gratitude for his presence in my life and for everything he taught me.
Nobody chooses their parents. And nobody chooses how long their parents will live. These are functions of randomness over which we have no control. Though I did nothing to deserve or affect it, by being “assigned” to Bea and Billy Ollinger, I won the parental lottery.
I was born to two parents who loved their children and dedicated their lives to educating and preparing them for life as adults. My folks were smart, kind, and decent human beings who put their kids before their professional ambitions. They prioritized Catholic school over material possessions (and air conditioning). They stayed together for 55 years because, well, that’s just what you do. And they created a loving home where, despite the occasional chaos, I knew I was safe and part of a tribe.
In this way, I experienced the greatest privilege I or anyone can receive or give: the gift of dedicated parenting. Thanks to good medical care, I savored my dad’s presence in my life until I was 51. I was able to see him dance at my wedding 13 years ago and watch him get to know and love the two children who arrived a few years later.
Dad’s longevity was never a sure thing. He survived two wars, two heart attacks, prostate cancer, decades of congestive heart failure, and, when I was nine years old, a brain injury that could have killed him. I can’t begin to get my head around the advantages — logistical, financial, emotional — I reaped because of this good luck.
I think he was aware of his good fortune and radiated that gratitude in his own dignified, cheerful way. He was brilliant, funny, and devout to Christian values and his sense of self. He knew who he was and never tried too hard to impress anyone. He was a great conversationalist because it was never about him. At a party, he would find the guest standing by themselves, then engage him or her in “them-centric” discussion into which he would throw corny jokes and self-deprecating humor.
He died with his head held high. In the last few weeks of his life, his physical and cognitive decline were palpable. I’d ask him, “Dad, how are you doing?” He would reply invariably, “I can’t complain.”
This was true: It just was not in his DNA to worry about things outside his control. And why should he? He had run his race, and he had done his very best, having lived life on his terms. He had worked his butt off to raise six kids he loved and who loved him back. He walked the walk of his values: faith, humility, and frugality. When I asked him how one prepares for having such a large family, he said, “You just trust in the Lord.”
Speaking of my siblings, I’ve learned a lot through the 10-year process of tending to elderly parents. It’s an opportunity to serve those who have served you, but it’s a hell of a lot of work, and none of it is glamorous. My five brothers and sisters and I have done all we could within the broader circumstances of our careers and families to embrace this duty.
I’d say it’s a thankless job, but it’s not. When you repay your parents with the love and care they showered on you, you earn the satisfaction of knowing you did your part. So not only did Dad have no regrets, neither do I. I didn’t just tell him I loved him regularly through those final years; I showed him I loved him by showing up to help. Guess who taught me to do that.
When you live for others while being true to yourself, regrets will find no purchase in your heart. And if you live your love for your parents, you will have nothing to regret the day they doze off in their favorite chair.