Hopeful New Year
This column first appeared January 2005.
When my grandfather died last May, just days short of his 95th birthday, he left a hole in his neighbourhood. He had relocated to Ottawa from Winnipeg when he remarried in 1980, and on his little street he became the lifeblood that held it together. A contractor by trade, he was forever climbing up ladders to clean eavestroughs, advise neighbours about their roofs, and, his favourite, paint.
When his wife died in 1997, many worried he would not be able to stay in his own home. But he did, largely with the help of the neighbours who had come to love him. One had him over for dinner every Tuesday. Another every Thursday. Another picked Sunday, and yet another did all his grocery shopping. The neighbours, though, always felt like they were getting the better end of the deal. He made them feel special. He kept track of children, grandchildren, retirements and graduations. He knew everything about everybody on the street, and was friends with all, even those who didnít like each other.
By all accounts, he should not have been this way. At the age of six his mother died, something that would surely scar any child. At the age of 11 he lost almost all his hearing due to scarlet fever, and until he received his first hearing aid in his late twenties he was virtually deaf. Teachers thought he was stupid. Girls wouldnít talk to him. But he plodded on.
Shortly after the hearing aid acquisition he also managed to acquire a wife. They had a wonderful marriage that lasted 25 years until she succumbed to a brain tumour. Within a few years he had married again: a fiery woman not anything like my grandmother. Their marriage, too, was a lot of fun until cancer stole her away seventeen years later. And then came the final wife, another distinct personality that he cherished.
Hereís a man who endured the death of his mother; a profound disability; the near collapse of his business in the Great Depression; several heart attacks in his 50s; and the death of three wives. Yet he still radiated peace and contentment. He was not perfect. He fretted, and he didnít know enough to stop when he should have. Yet his was a life anyone would be proud of.
As the new year comes Iíve been thinking a lot about my Poppa. I want, beyond all, to be the kind of person who leaves a mark on those around me just as he did. I want to be able to look at adversity and not just cope, but thrive. I want to be flexible enough to handle whatever hand is dealt me, even if itís not what I envision. These traits, I believe, are the heart of optimism.
Optimism, if you look at my grandfatherís life, is not something that is borne out of things going well for you. It is cultivated in the way we choose to respond to things going badly. As parents, one of the best things we can do is cultivate optimism in our own children, for it is far more important for academic and professional success than is intelligence. For social and personal success, itís even more crucial. When you go through life with a chip on your shoulder, as if everyone is against you, soon everyone will be. But if we can go through life being part of the solution, soon people will be rooting for us.
My daughter Rebecca recently had to practise for a piano recital. She didnít like the pieces, and was making sure practice time was unbearable for everyone. So I had a talk with her. Did she want to do the recital? Yes. Could she change the pieces? No. So why fret? "You donít understand!" she cried. "Youíve never been in a piano recital!" So we talked about Poppa, and how when things canít be changed, itís best to accept them and move on. "I guess I need a new attitude," she said. I told her not to worry; such an attitude runs in her genes. Poppa knew that life isnít just worth living, itís worth embracing. Even piano recitals. That makes everybody happier, but especially you. Hereís wishing all of us that kind of hopeful New Year.