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On Beauty and Bravery and Strong Open Hearts: A Thank You to My Dad

dadDear Dad,

I just wanted to say thank you.

Thank you. For being you. For helping me become me.

Because you did do exactly that: you empowered me to become the woman that I am. You made it possible for me to lean, from a very young age, into   my own path, into the journey of defining who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I would become. You were the one who taught me that the path, the journey, was mine to determine. You were the one who taught me that I should do that, and that I could do that.

And you knew – you believed, in the manner of having faith in a clear truth – that I could do that. You believed in me, and that made all the difference. When you told me to go and change the world, I knew that you really wanted me to do it, and that you really believed that I could do it. Our conversations about the path that I could make for myself were never about the challenges that I might face, as a girl, as a woman, trying to make her own path. Not because you didn’t see those challenges – I know that you saw them – but because you simply didn’t believe they could stop me. You knew that I could do anything, be anything, not because I was, to you, an extraordinary girl – you believed that I could do anything and be anything because I was an extraordinary person. Every word, every gesture, every moment of your life with me communicated that: I was an extraordinary human being, and I could do anything. Except dance, maybe, but even with that I’m pretty sure that you believed that if I wanted it badly enough I would find a way.

You knew that no matter what, I would find my way. It mattered to you that I find the right way – oh, you were so patient with me when I wandered onto sideroads and down obscure paths (how did I end up doing musical theater in the south of Spain?) – but it also mattered that I be happy, that whatever I did, whatever path I took, that I love what I was doing. Ideally, it would be all these things – something meaningful, something that made a difference, and something that I loved – but you would take my happiness over all else. Still, your message was constant: make it count, because you can. Make a difference, because you can. Choose the way that makes the world a better place, because you can, and because you should. You taught me that being able to make my own path was a privilege, and a responsibility. It mattered that I could do it. It mattered even more that I do it right.

So, yes. I knew that I could find my way, and that I would find my way, the right way, even when the path was dark, even when the path was hard, because your faith in me became the source of my faith in myself. That faith was more powerful than pep talks and rousing speeches – although there were plenty of those. Your words reached my mind – you and Mom both made sure that I was both fluent and literate in the language of my own empowerment. But your faith in me reached my heart. Your faith in me didn’t need words, and your faith in me – and my own faith in me, owed to you – is what keeps me going when words fail.

I didn’t know until late in your life how hard your own path had been. You told me that part of you had wanted that I never know. The other part, the part that did want me to know, wanted me to know so that I could know you. And so that I could know that pain and darkness and struggle could lead to love and beauty and hope. So that I could know that even dark paths could lead to light; so that I could know that even broken hearts can be strong.

You taught me that open hearts were the strongest.  You also taught me that they were the most vulnerable, the most prone to breaking, but this, you said, was precisely what made them strong. The open heart knows what it feels like to be exposed. The open heart knows what it feels like to be touched. The open heart is  a brave heart, not because it never feels hurt or fear, but because it doesn’t shrink from hurt or fear. It lets them in with all the other things, like hope, and love.

I know that that was sometimes a hard lesson for you to teach, because you weren’t always sure that your own heart was strong.  In all of the most important ways, that made your lesson more forceful. You had a sore heart, a hurting heart, but it was the strongest heart that I ever knew. And you always kept it open for me, even when it hurt to do so. And so I learned to keep my own heart open, even when it hurt.

I am stronger for it. I am stronger for you.

After you died, when I was struggling through the work of sorting and cataloging your life, I found the passage below. You had photocopied and cropped and, with ragged pieces of Scotch tape, affixed the two paragraphs to a blank piece of paper that you tucked away within the pages of a journal that had no words, other than your full name, in neat script, on the inside front cover. It was on your nightstand, an arm’s reach from where you died.

How should we be able to forget these ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last minute turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.*

I like to think that that was your letter to me. I tell myself that that was your letter to me. Someday I’ll share it with my own children, and I will tell them that the personal translation is this: Dear Cathy, beautiful and brave… know these things to be true: that inside every problem, there is an opportunity; that inside every hurt, there is something to learn; that inside every sadness, there is something beautiful; and that inside every darkness, there is the possibility of light. Know that if you keep an open heart, life will never forget you. Know that if you lean into life – beautifully, bravely – it will hold you, and it will carry you forward, and it will not let you fall.

Because I want them to know that. I want them to know that you didn’t ever have to tell me that you wouldn’t let me fall, because you didn’t need to. You made sure that I would be fine on my own, with my strong open heart, in the palm of life’s hand. You made sure that I knew that. You made sure that I had, that I would always have, faith in that. I want that for them, too.

I want that, because that has made all the difference. It is what has always inspired and empowered me to lean in to my own path and make the journey count. That matters (I insist this, I underline it, because I know that if you were listening – if you are listening – you would disclaim it, you would insist that it was not you, that it was me, that it has always been me, that you just believed. I underline this, because I want you to know: that you believed matters.) What moves me to lean in, to always lean in, is not the rational arguments for leaning in, not the whys and the whithers and the wherefores – it’s the inspiration that you were the first to provide. Leaning in is, for me, the actualization of a faith – yours, in me.

I will pass along that faith to my children. And it passing along that faith, empower them the change the world. Just the way that you would have wanted.

I miss you, Dad, but you’re with me always, always.

I thank you for that, too.

Cathy

*Rainier Maria Rilke (Letters To A Young Poet, 1934.)

We’re celebrating Father’s Day by celebrating leaning into fatherhood and by recognizing the extraordinary men that are our own fathers. We hope that it will inspire you to thank your own dad or the dad who most inspires you. Find more letters and stories about leaning into parenthood here. And, of course, find your own Lean In inspiration at LeanIn.org.

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