- Jennifer Swartley
The Greatest Lesson My Father Left Behind
I lost my father when I was 17 years old, a freshman in college who had chosen to move 3,000 miles away from home. Learning that he had suffered a sudden heart attack while I was studying for my finals was not how I expected to close out my freshman year at NYU. He was all the way in LA and although I jumped on a plane as soon as I could, I never got to say goodbye.
I would spend the next few decades of my life moving through that grief and allowing that loss to define me. I always hated how long it was taking me to get over it. I wanted closure and I wanted to be free from the fear that any mention of my dad would put me in tears. At first I had used my coping mechanisms of denial and distraction. I pushed through and launched an incredibly successful marketing career in the name of “making my father proud.” I really thought that if I worked hard and became super successful, my father would live on through me.
You see, my father was an immigrant from Hungary, who had come here and built a career building prototypes for Hughes Aircraft. He worked nearly every second of his life, taking on night shifts and filling his days building our house, fixing our cars, and helping out neighbors and family nearby. He always had a toolbelt on, grease on his hands, and when I was younger, I loved to follow him around, glued to his hip as his little helper.
I attributed my work ethic to him. He taught me the value of hard work, how you fill your days with accomplishments and take pride in the work you do. And while those are valuable lessons, they’ve actually been a bit of my achilles heel. I defined my value in how hard I could work and I took on jobs that were bigger than one person should handle. I overcompensated for areas of weakness with hard work, often staying up until all hours of the night to get a task done. I was blind to the downsides of these traits because I cloaked them in my view of myself as reliable, and hard working - just like my dad.
But in the last few years as I’ve begun questioning whether hard work really is the end all be all, I started to see how it was compromising my own health. I knew I needed to redefine myself and so I found another lesson to add to my dad’s legacy - one that's far more important.
My dad died when he was just 57 and it was sudden with no warning for him or any of our family. I got to bear witness to how fragile life is. I learned firsthand that no day is guaranteed. I understand deeply that you can’t put off happiness until all your work is done. You can’t save up all those trips for retirement. Every day must be celebrated and appreciated. Working hard without enjoying the fruits of your labor is not the point of life. I think ultimately my dad knew that deep down inside, because he really did love simple pleasures like good food, getting out into nature, and laughing with friends and family.
So now I focus on living every day to the fullest. How can I show up more fully? How can I be more present at work and at home? How can I find joy in the simple pleasures like dance parties with my children or sitting by the fire with my love? When I take time to really savor the joy of these moments, my life gets better. I’m happier and more lit up to do my work. I now find myself gravitating towards those little pockets of joy. I architect them into my life and have spent time thinking about what really lights me up.
This is a very different way of living than when I was addicted to the grind and waiting for the next level of success to make me happy. It seemed I was always chasing something back then and growing increasingly tired doing it.
I’m still coming to terms with death and the impermanence of all things around us, but I’m starting to loosen the grip. Our kids grow and change, we enter different phases of our career and life. Each one offers new excitement and new challenges. We may move houses, travel to new places, experience new things, but it all comes and goes. There’s a flow to it and all we can do is try our best to enjoy each and every precious moment as we live it. And in that, I know my father lives on and has given me the greatest gift anyone could give another person - the gift of a life well-lived.