the worldmblog

January 13, 2005


Daniel Regelbrugge, Contributor.

I recall having written recently, with respect to the way various people deal with tragedy in the world, that sometimes we are all simply too preoccupied with our own petty lives… our own petty problems to really register the suffering of others. As I wrote those words, I remember distinctly feeling for the strength within myself to be the person I believe myself capable of becoming… altruistic… selfless.

When one thinks about selflessness, or altruism, one generally conjures the image of a person that casts good will on to those with whom he or she is not actually acquainted. One generally imagines some noble gesture rendered by an inspired soul wandering the rainforest, or some other wasteland… cradling a starving, or AIDS afflicted child.

Certainly, these are immeasurably noble manifestations of the soul, or the heart on this earth. Certainly, these sorts of deeds represent levels of compassion or love to which we, as humans, should all aspire.

But sometimes in our lives, it happens, for whatever reason, that we come upon the realization that we’ve been in the midst of a truly selfless soul for most of our lives, without ever really understanding it until it was too late. Well, almost too late.

My father is 66 years old, and has been engaged in a life and death battle with Bone Marrow Cancer for the last 13 years. 13 years. Even his doctors marvel at the fight he’s put up against this terrible disease. He is, eternally, the steadfast dreamer that came to America without speaking a word of English… that refused to accept failure or mediocrity in any aspect of his life.

Over the course of his illness, he has been subjected, out of sheer desperation, to myriad experimental drugs, radical treatments… sinister alchemy. The latest, and likely last attempt to salvage some semblance of comfort in his life was to have been a mixture of three experimental drugs with arsenic. Faced with this, after having fought so long… so bravely, my father has refused the treatment.

And so I’ve come home to spend some time… to sit… to listen… to do whatever I can to help comfort my father. Yesterday he expressed to me that his lone lament was that he would not be able to play a bigger part in the lives of his young grandchildren. He has no fear for what lies before him, stretched across the fields of the absolute. Each of us, in our turn, must make peace with our own mortality. But he was thinking, as always, about others.

I look back on some of the rare, wonderful, and sometimes not so pleasant things that my father’s done for me and my family and am truly humbled. I remember when he worked three jobs just so that we could have some clothes for school, or so we could afford to play soccer. Three jobs. Nothing glamorous, mind you.

This brilliant linguist and school- teacher… this great poet and thinker, scrubbed toilets at a tank arsenal… he managed a roller skating rink! At the time, it was all fun and games for us. “Dad works with tanks!!!” “Hey dad—can we come roller skating today?” He would just smile, taking with him… tucking inside for a spell his anguish or the contempt he had for some of the compromises he’d had to make in his own life… so that we could have everything we needed, or simply wanted.

I remember how he patiently waited for me to sift my way through all my adolescent angst in the wake of the divorce. I misbehaved so badly in school -the school where he taught, no less- I can only imagine the silent shame he experienced each time a colleague of his would come to him with a report of what an asshole I was. But as frustrated, and no doubt disappointed as he ever was, he was there for me when I needed him to help me to grow as a man.

I remember when he met me in Melk, Austria, just before I went on a yearlong deployment to Bosnia. We walked for hours along the Danube talking about dreams, the paths we choose in life… the importance of courage… of dignity. I was scared to go. I’d never been in a war zone before. He told me that it was okay to be frightened, but not to dwell in the dross. “Think of something that you really look forward to… something you love, and then imagine it as a beacon waiting for you on the other side of whatever it is you’re frightened of…” I was still pretty young. I was thinking only about myself, but he was there for me to lift me up.

Years later, when I came back to Washington D.C. prior to deploying to the Desert, he flew me home for a long weekend, just so that I would have the chance to see my family before I went off to war. Again, I was scared. This time my fear was different. I was now a husband and a father. I wasn’t scared of bullets, or mines, or chemical agents. I knew that I’d chosen my path, and was prepared to accept anything fate had in store for me. I was, however, numb with fear to imagine my wife and children’s life without me, should I die. Maybe… finally, some of his lessons about thinking about others had begun to surface in my life.

Sometimes I, like everyone else in this world, am too caught up in my own petty life… my own petty problems to register the suffering of others. Sometimes I sit downstairs, in this home where he taught me so much, and I watch him sleep in his chair. He has dreams of his parents, dead these many years. I think about all the people in the world that have lost loved ones. I think about the pervasive devastation and tragedy in this world. But there are beacons all around us. Sometimes, they shine out to us from the most unexpected places… from people that we perhaps, once, absurdly took for granted. Sometimes it just takes one special person to show us how to live, and die with dignity.