In the last months of my father’s life, he asked me to help him write letters to all of his grandchildren. As difficult as this was to do, I opened my laptop and transcribed as he spoke, trying not to let him see any tears rolling down my cheeks. With an incurable lung disease, he was hooked up to oxygen and had to stop to catch his breath every sentence or so. He also repeated a lot of phrases, as his short-term memory was in steep decline due to the disease process. But I didn’t mind—this was a chance for him to share his thoughts, to impart his nearly seven decades of wisdom.

What struck me as I pecked the keys were his words—in every note, he talked about character—a term I had never heard him utter. Here are just a few of the pieces of advice he wrote to his grandkids:

  • The most important thing about a person is their character and how they live their life.
  • By being honest, fair, and respecting others’ feelings, you can become good friends—but you have to work at it.
  • Try to be honest and truthful (so you don’t have to make up stories later).
  • Be respectful of other people.
  • Be involved and be a part of making improvements in the world.
  • Make an effort to learn something about everything and everything about something.
  • Don’t be afraid to share things with your parents. They are here to support and guide you.
  • Set goals based on what you like to do and make plans to accomplish them, but remember, goals can be flexible.
  • If you follow these rules, you will develop strong moral and ethical standards.

I kept wondering to myself, when did my dad become so focused on morals and how one presents oneself to the world? I knew my dad was a good person—honest, loyal, responsible, and trustworthy—I just never thought of him as having the secret to what “model character” may look like.

My dad was never one to give life lessons on ethics or values like those listed above. And aside from dropping off occasional items to Goodwill, he did not actively volunteer or participate in charity work. Was talking about character simply his way of ensuring that his grandchildren would lead nobler lives? Did he regret certain things in his own life that he wanted his grandchildren to avoid? I never challenged my dad on the language he was using, as I wanted his final letters to be meaningful and authentic to his wishes.

And then something very unexpected happened. After my dad passed, my family started receiving cards and letters that contained more than the usual sympathy note. And at his celebration-of-life event, his coworkers, neighbors, and even a few family members shared stories about my dad, and how he approached life, that I’d never heard. And they were all about his character—about things he had done to help or support others, good deeds that he largely kept to himself.

  • My uncle shared how my dad was the first in the family to volunteer to take in their father, when he grew older and needed help. At age 42, my dad rearranged his whole life—and home—to be a caregiver.
  • A close neighbor, who often traveled, shared how my father went above and beyond when collecting their mail while they were away. Once, their water heater broke and my dad cleaned up all the floors and had the unit repaired before they returned.
  • Numerous coworkers and staff from across the country whom he had trained, going back 30 years, expressed how my dad had helped to shape, support, and grow their careers—always putting relationships before titles.
  • When my maternal grandmother passed, my dad was named executor of the estate in her will. Despite having 8 children, including my mother, my grandmother had picked my dad—her son-in-law—to carry out her final wishes. She trusted him above all to ensure that her assets were managed properly and fairly.
  • In my dad’s final months, the Veterans Affairs office attempted to hold a simple ceremony for my father to honor his service to the country. But he refused, pointing out that he was only in the Naval Reserves and never served in combat. My mother accepted a certificate for him, but he felt that too was undeserved.
  • So many individuals used the words “good person,” “generous,” “kind,” “supportive,” “respectful,” “loyal,” and “leader” to describe my father.

The truth was, my dad lived his life with remarkable character—one surrounded in routine, humility, and respect. He lived his life in the manner that he now wanted to communicate to his grandkids—a manner he never boasted but rather lived by example.

This character carried even into his final days. In the three years he lived after his diagnosis—a pulmonary disorder that had no causal explanation, my dad never once complained or showed resentment toward his condition. When he had to start carrying a portable oxygen tank to the store or a restaurant, he did so without embarrassment. When he had to get around on a scooter, because he could no longer walk without running out of breath, he approached it with fun, whisking through rooms and giving his grandkids rides.

Despite the months of trial-and-error with medications that never actually helped; despite his growing inability to climb stairs, walk, or even stand; despite the fact that he could no longer garden—his favorite pastime—or attend his grandchildren’s soccer games or dance recitals; despite how his symptoms plagued his body, he always, always put on his game face.

Whenever my brother or I walked into the room, his first question was to ask how we were doing. When his grandchildren jumped on his lap, he would go along with whatever silly game they were playing and ignore the discomfort he likely felt.

If my dad was scared, frustrated, or angry—as any person facing death would reasonably be—he never showed it. No matter how he felt, or looked, he embodied strength and resilience. His only concerns were directed at making sure his family was going to be okay after he was inevitably gone.

It was not until a few days before he passed that my brother, mother, and I witnessed my father cry, finally overwhelmed by how long he had lain in a hospital bed. I remember the day my dad got into that hospital bed, brought to the house by his hospice care team. In the prior months, he had spent the bulk of his days sitting in a recliner chair by the TV, only shifting to his regular bed via wheelchair to sleep. We all tried to make the hospital bed appealing, sitting and laying on it, saying how comfortable it was, and how “cool” the up and down buttons were. But you could see in his eyes that he didn’t want to make the move—he knew that the second he got into that bed, he would never again get out of it. He was right. My dad was in that bed for three-and-a-half months straight—day and night—through his last hours of life.

Even though I didn’t fully realize it while he was still alive, still here, it’s possible that my father’s quiet vision of character was ingrained in me. A few years back, I fell in love with this quote and aim to work toward it each day:

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Only time will tell if I, and his grandchildren, will be able to fill his shoes.


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Anticipatory Grief: Mourning a Life Before It's Gone

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When a Loved One is Dying: The Unspoken Emotions & Impact

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When Death Defies Dignity: The Choice to Give In

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The Other Side of Grief

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Last Updated: Nov 20, 2020