15: Living in My Heart

15: Living in My Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

Living in My Heart

Oh heart, if one should say to you that the soul perishes like the body, answer that the flower withers, but the seed remains.

~Kahlil Gibran

I can still remember standing at the edge, the sensation of uneasiness as I looked down at the water below me. It beckoned me to jump in, but I couldn’t move.

In my seven-year-old mind, I told my legs to bend, my body to rise up and leave the platform, but they stubbornly refused. I remained motionless on the edge. It was the day of reckoning. Everyone in the class had jumped off the diving board but me. Sooner or later I would have to take my turn. My later had become now. I backed up a little, as if that would somehow make the inevitable less likely. It was then that I heard his voice.

“Jump,” I heard my father’s voice. “Just jump in.”

I refused to look up and kept my gaze at the water below.

“Jump, Mijita, jump. You can do it!”

I finally moved my eyes away from the water. My father was on the sidelines. He had a huge smile on his face. There was no doubt on his face that I could do it. He threw an encouraging wink. Not wanting to disappoint him, I jumped. Before the sensation of falling and hitting the water registered in my brain, I was already floating up to the surface. My dad was waiting with a towel as I climbed out of the water.

“You did it! You jumped in!”

That was my dad’s life philosophy. Just jump in. Anytime I was afraid of anything, he’d tell me to envision the worst that could happen, make a plan and then go for it. Just jump in, he would say, and with his help, I would. The little girl who was afraid of the diving board soon joined the swim team. That same shy girl danced in the school play and played guard on the basketball team. Often insecure, I was always sure that everyone else was smarter than me. Refusing to let me think like a failure and expecting only the best from me, I brought home A’s.

My dad encouraged me to jump in all my life. When I was a shy teenager, he forced me to speak my mind and defend my position through debates at the dinner table. As I grew older, he constantly reminded me there was nothing beyond my reach; nothing I could not accomplish. He helped me to dream and make my dreams become real. I counted on him to be my strength, my cheerleader and my support. And no matter what, he was always there.

So when he was diagnosed with cancer, I had a hard time believing it. That previous year he had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. The diagnosis seemed an unfair blow to a man who was already tackling so much. But the man, who should have been bitter, never was. Like so many times before, he encouraged me to make peace with it. “I’m fine,” he would say. Even in his weakened state I depended on him for my strength. I wanted to believe that all would be okay, that nothing was impossible.

So when the cancer was diagnosed as incurable, his acceptance floored me. I wanted him to fight the doctors, tell me they were wrong. Surely he wouldn’t give up. There was still a lot to do. He was supposed to teach my son and daughter Spanish, and be their cheerleader when they learned to ride their bikes or learned to swim. He needed to be here to help me teach them to be strong, to persevere and to dream. I wanted him to teach them to jump. I wanted his spirit to make them the kind of people who would take risks, reach out for the impossible. I wanted him to give my children all the things he had given to me.

Much too quickly, his body gave in to the cancer. We knew it was coming soon, so my sister stayed with my dad and mom. We had decided to take turns holding vigil. But it turns out he didn’t live long enough for any of that. I got a call one morning that the end was near and raced over to my parents’ house. Death is not like it is in the movies. In the movies, people have last moments to say goodbye, say what you never got to say or were holding back, or at the very least, say a last “I love you.” Unlike the big screen, I didn’t get there in time for a last goodbye and final words. He was gone moments before I arrived. That fact still haunts me. My dad would have laughed at the idea that I think about it at all. “Wasted energy,” he probably would say.

One romantic thought about losing someone you love is the notion that they are always with you in your heart. So when my father left this earth, I searched my heart to find him. I wanted to be able to feel his presence, especially when I needed his strength. For a long time, all I felt was emptiness. The sensation of him being beside me eluded me.

Then, one summer afternoon, the searching ended. My daughter Sarah and I were watching my son during swimming class. He was only three and he was shy, a sharp contrast to my outgoing, exuberant daughter. So when the instructor asked if anyone wanted to jump off the diving board, I was surprised when my son (with strong coercion from my daughter) said yes, especially when all the other boys in the class had responded with an adamant shake of the head.

Once he was up there, however, he had second thoughts. He stood on the edge of the platform. He didn’t want to jump. Standing, looking at the water, he froze. Instinctually, I wanted to tell him it was okay. I wanted to tell him to turn around and come back down the stairs to where the rest of the class was waiting. In fact, I opened my mouth just to say those words. But instead of telling him to come down, I found myself telling him to jump.

Sarah and I yelled out from the sidelines.

“Jump Adam, jump. You can do it!” we called out.

Adam caught my eye and I sent him a wink and a smile.

“Jump in, Adam. Just jump!”

My dad was there with my daughter and me, encouraging Adam and cheering him on. My dad was sure Adam could do it, and so was I. Adam moved closer to the edge. I could hear Dad’s reassuring voice, harmonious with mine.

“You can do it!”

Then, sending a quick smile our way, my little boy, the same one who was afraid of his own shadow, did just that. He jumped in!

~Teresa Armas

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