Finding Fortune

My father has been dead for many years, but if I were to glance up and find him sitting on my couch, legs propped on my coffee table, swearing at a Lakers game, I would not be shocked.

He might be physically absent from my world, but he still lives with me, like all the other members of my family.  He occupies a space within.  A space reserved just for him.  And from that space he looks at me with love.  Brings me a glass of water in the middle of the night.  Marvels at the humour and the height of the grandson he never met. Smiles at the wisdom of the granddaughter who keeps a photograph of him on her desk. And tells me, in that way he had of telling me, all the words he still wants me to hear.

His voice is clear. Deep. A Philly drawl sprinkled with twenty years in London. He says things like:
“Did you get a load of that kid?” (usually referring to a forty-five year old man)
“The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day – what more could I want?” (this after he left London)
“Jesus Christ!” ( loudly under his breath, not worshipping, but condemning any unsuspecting fellow diner who dared sneeze too close to him in a restaurant).

And the one that stays with me the most, like the surprising slip of a fortune that you carry home from dinner in your pocket and tape optimistically to your mirror, “The worst thing that ever happened to me turned out to be the best…”

I loved those words.  I still do.

My father repeated those words when I was forced to wear an embarrassing patch over the left lens of my glasses.  When I didn’t get elected for middle school student body president (and he had designed all of the campaign posters). When the short waiter with the limited vocabulary stamped on my heart.  When I was rejected from my first choice university. He didn’t live long beyond my university years, but his words continue to resonate.

For him that tenant was tried and true. His greatest professional failure led him to escape across the Atlantic, where he reinvented himself, fell in love with my mother, and had the family he never imagined he would at the age of fifty – the best.

When a promising opportunity I felt certain would materialise, disintegrated painfully at the end of last year, my father’s words floated into my head.  There he was, comfortable on my couch, chin propped on his hand, reassuring me.  Life doesn’t always take you where you want it to.  Destinies have a way of swerving and revealing views you never imagined encountering.  Stay open.  Stay receptive.  “The worst thing that ever happened to me turned out to be the best, kid”.  I know those words inevitably won’t always ring true; life is infinitely complicated and often brutal. But I’m still listening. Still hopeful. I still want to believe for all of us that shadows can shape shift, letting in light where you least expect it.

Do my father’s words hold any meaning for you?

What is written on your crumpled fortune cooke slips?  Whose words stay with you when you really need to hear them, and how have they reverberated in your life?

Be brave and share your stories – they are the fragments that make you whole. Write down whatever arrives and welcome in the person who passed them on.

4 Responses to “Finding Fortune”

  1. Lou
    January 26, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    My parents are desperately in love. They have been married for 50 years. My mother is firmly held in the grip of Alzheimers which means she has to be in a Home…. My Father sees her virtually every day and they fall asleep together regularly on her bed. He has written a story about their love and it is so moving it moves me to tears each time I read it. He opens the Memoir with a poem by Wordsworth, but ends it with the most tender quotation:‘There is nothing more practical than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.’ (Rev Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ)……..

  2. Anonymous
    January 27, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    Karen H.We promised that we would send each other butterflies. That's what we decided on a cold December day between Christmas and New Years, with the snow falling lightly outside of our hotel room in Vail, Colorado. Dad had just finished reading the book "Many Lives, Many Masters" and I had just started it. We spent that day talking about life after death, and our spirituality and my mother's love of butterflies. We spoke of reincarnation and coming back again and again into different lives until our souls were pure. He was sure he'd be back again and said there was still time for me to get this one right. We laughed a lot that day in between some tears. We reminisced about the August afternoon the summer before that, when a black butterfly landed on his open palm in our backyard. And about the great pictures I was able to capture before the butterfly flew to me, and then back again to him. We were convinced that the black butterfly had been Mom visiting us in a different form. So we decided on that snowy day, with our minds racing with the possibilities of a mysterious after life, that whoever dies first will send the other a symbol that everything is all right on the other side. I suggested the symbol be a black butterfly, and he agreed.I never assumed my Dad would die before me. I had experienced sudden and unexpected loss when Mom was killed by a drunk driver when I was nine. Both her parents outlived her, so I knew it was possible Dad could outlive me. Two years later, early on a December morning, I had my first dream of a black butterfly landing in my hand as I reached for it. In the dream I thought to myself, I can't wait to tell Dad I'm dreaming about the butterfly. I was woken from the dream by the sound of my doorbell. For some reason I had fallen asleep in my clothes the night before, so I went straight to the front door. Through the peephole I could only see a very tall figure silhouetted with the rising sun behind him. I opened the door and saw that it was my brother Mark in tears. I screamed "No!" as he reached for me and told me, "He's gone."One of the many poems that Dad wrote and left for his five children ended with, "I am in you, a better place than I was before."

  3. Jenn Poole
    January 27, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

    My Uncle Jon was my mother's oldest brother, an unmarried Episcopal priest and a devoted practitioner of civil disobedience in the name of justice who marched with Dr. King in Selma and who was kicked out of Berkeley in the 60's for burning his draft card. When I was a child he would show up to our house in his yellow VW Beetle, tall and lanky in jeans and a black shirt, wearing his white priest collar and flat leather sandals, sunglasses with small round lenses, and an ever-present pack of Marlboros. He baptized all of the children in my family, spoke several languages, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of literature. He nurtured my love of literature early on, one of the first champions of my later studies and eventual profession. He also swore like the proverbial sailor. I would giggle to hear people call him "Father Olson" because to me he was kooky Uncle Jon who drank Coke from the bottle and brought me Necco wafers whenever he visited. He was a man of irreconcilable impulses and talents, highs and lows. The man who drew severe & beautiful pen-and-ink images of the Virgin Mary and of Christ for his church newsletter was the same man who taught me how to say "shit" in French (while we were sitting in the Palais Royale). Uncle Jon was a fun and fascinating adult to know when I was a child; kind of like Jay Gatsby – anything seemed possible.As I became an adult, some of the paradoxes of my uncle revealed themselves to be more complicated, self-destructive qualities that took a toll on him and my family. My relationship with Uncle Jon ebbed and flowed, but even in the most challenging moments of his life (and thus ours), I saw him in a kindred spirit, someone else for whom the written word and philosophical engagement with the self and world were vital endeavors. It did not occur to me until many years after his death that Uncle Jon saw in me the same intellectual companion. During a particularly turbulent period of my especially turbulent marriage, my uncle wrote me a long letter after he had heard about my situation from my mom. At the time I think I received the letter with a kind of vague gratitude, so caught up in my turmoil that I didn't really understand the profundity of what Uncle Jon was saying to me. As often happens in relationships and in the experience of our daily lives, I was struggling in that marriage to figure out who I was and what I needed, to understand that one can be in a crowd and feel lonely, but be by oneself and feel companionship. Years after that marriage had ended, and several years after my uncle had passed away, I came across his letter and re-read it. Uncle Jon's words, which didn't really sink in back in 1995, are now ones I return to again and again as a touchstone for my life. Addressing me by the only name he ever called me, he wrote: "Dearheart, to be a self is to be a solitude … a solitude which can never fulfill the infantile dream of merging with anyone or anything, nor the conventional dream of losing oneself in anyone or anything. That is, at once, the description of the awful grandeur of our humanity and of the ground of our most nagging terrors, until we have gone through enough rounds with life that we finally discover (to our chagrin and our surprised relief) that our solitude is not the defeat which we always dreaded, but is the persistence of the irreducible mystery of our self." This is certainly more than an aphorism I can easily summon in conversation at a dinner party, but the beauty of my uncle's words and the heart of what they mean – to know and love one's own company – guide me.

  4. Sophie James
    March 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    This was a really beautiful read. You capture him – and yourself at that time – so well. You have distilled him into all the lovely people I have known and loved and cherished and now miss. Thank you, Rory.

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