My grandfather – my dad’s dad, the one I never met – was born during the first World War. He spent his childhood living through the Great Depression, then fought in the second World War before returning home from the South Pacific to his job as a carpenter. Every once in awhile I’ll hear my dad say something his father used to say a half century ago. Some quip or phrase that stuck with him all these years. And now, quite often actually, I catch myself muttering those phrases and chuckling to myself. “Andy died.”(1)
I often wish I knew more about my grandfather. A hard man, from what I can gather, but seemed to love his family very much. He worked hard. He’d seen some shit. He’d been through hard times, but typical of most men of his time, he came out the other side stronger and wiser. I know he passed some of that down to my dad. Was he the perfect father? Of course not. But he didn’t have to be. My grandmother is a saint, one who has the capability to cover a multitude of shortcomings by shear force of will. This woman is incredible. Unbelievable, even. She raised eight kids while working as a nurse for decades. She always put others ahead of herself. I know she passed some of that down to my dad, too.
Growing up, I didn’t realize just how lucky I was to have a father like mine. A servant at his core, he always stayed outside five minutes longer than he wanted to to hit pop-flys for me and my brother to catch in the front yard. And this was after working three night shifts in a row. At the church on Sunday morning after a particularly hard snow, he’d spend a few minutes finding the shovel somewhere in the storage room so he could clear a path for others. No gloves, no hat, sometimes even without a coat. “I don’t need no shtinkin’ coat!” he’d growl with a smirk.
From the outside, my father doesn’t live a lavish life. Though, the way my dad lives his life may force others to measure success using a different rubric. While most Americans measure success in things – the prestigious job title, the luxury car, the mansion on 40 acres, the lowest golf handicap – my dad’s success comes from his relationships. He possesses a genuinely selfless desire to help others, even if it means discomfort for him. His gigantic heart is what makes him a person others want to be around.
Joseph Jay Gapinski isn’t real complicated. He cries at corny commercials. He’s unashamed to beam with pride when one of his kids does something great. He’s somewhere between six and eight inches shorter than me, but smart money would go on him if ever we found ourselves in a physical altercation. He’s “old man” strong. To others, he’s probably the least intimidating person in the world, but I know the truth. The thing is, there would never be a physical altercation. He’s not a fighter.
But that’s not completely true, either, is it. He is a fighter. For years, he fought to keep food on the table for our family. He fought to spend meaningful time with his kids. He fought to make his wife a priority. Nowadays, he’s still fighting for all of those things. And he’s still fighting for the hearts of his kids. His faith is stronger than it has ever been, and he’s making every effort to teach his sons and daughters why that’s important. My dad is certainly not a picture of perfection. He has his flaws, some larger than others. But I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’ve never learned from anyone in my life more than I’ve learned from my dad.
I got to see my dad about a couple months ago. My son, now three years old, may have been more excited than me. He calls my dad “Doe”. My niece calls him “Pa”. They absolutely adore this man, and the feeling is mutual. Something very important to me is that my son understands where I came from. Not now, necessarily. He’s too young to care. But when he’s in his mid-20’s, trying to figure his life out, questioning why I parented him the way I did, I want him to look at his grandfather, my dad, and realize just how great he’s got it.
That assumes I don’t mess this parenting thing up too badly. While I am quite confident in the job I’ve done as a father thus far, I realize I’ve only been doing this dad thing for three years. In short, the jury is still out. Way, way out. But what I’m really getting at here is that my dad laid such a strong foundation for our family, teaching us what matters most in life, and now all of those lessons will be passed along to my own children. I’m forever grateful to my father for his loving example.
I’ve been thinking a lot about different generations of men. My friend Adam and I talked about it a little when I wrote his story awhile back. Remember Adam, the Polish guy? Anyway, the idea of each generation evolving, having been informed by the prior generation, well, it’s thought-provoking stuff. For example, my grandfather’s generation spent their youth living through The Great Depression, then fought in World War II. My dad’s generation grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, in the height of the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War. My generation barely – yet, vividly – remembers a time before cell phones and personal computers, but more importantly, our youth will forever be marred by the searing images of the North and South towers falling to earth, and we have to wrestle with what that means for the world going forward.
What seems to remain constant through the generations is that each one experiences some sort of widespread trauma, whether we ourselves are being traumatized or we see it happening to others. As technology and the way we consume information becomes more sophisticated, it’s all too common to see the worst this world has to offer. I often wonder if enough men are living out the life they ought to be exemplifying for future generations.
But then I watch my dad playing with his grandchildren. I see the way he treats the waiter at a restaurant. I look on in terror as he tries to strike up a conversation with a stranger at a gas station, dropping some corny dad joke that actually makes everyone laugh on account of how embarrassing it is. I witness the way his heart breaks when someone he loves is headed down the wrong path. And conversely, I can’t help but smile when he cries tears of joy.
Back in July, I saw my dad when we were all on vacation in the mountains in Tennessee. Something rare happened, but I think it illustrates what I’m getting at with this post. My dad made a mistake.
My wife and I went on a date and we left the kids back at the cabin with the rest of the family. We keep the kids on a pretty consistent routine, so we gave instructions to have them down for bed at a certain time. My parents did just what we asked, but about ten minutes after the kids went down, my son crawled out of his bed and made his way to the living room where everyone else was hanging out. They were all having a good time and he wanted to be there, too. I don’t blame him, my family is a lot of fun.
My parents let him stay up a little bit before finally putting him back down. After all, it was vacation. Fearing that we would get mad about it, they kept it quiet. Sure enough, my sister showed me a video the next day of Hendrik and Claire (my niece) playing in the drapes, being super cute.
My dad was sitting at the table across from me as I watched the short video and he muttered to my sister, “You weren’t supposed to show him that.”
I quickly told my dad that I didn’t want those sorts of secrets kept from me about my kids. I don’t ever want someone to tell my son or daughter to keep a secret from me, no matter what it is. In our family, we’re honest with each other, no matter the consequences that honesty might have. I wasn’t mad that Hendrik stayed up a few extra minutes. I was pretty upset, however, at the attempted cover-up.
My dad sort of slunk his head, quickly realizing the implications of what he’d said and ultimately done. Without hesitation, he apologized. Not a quick, cheap “oh sorry about that”, but a sincere, heartfelt apology that fully expressed that he understood what I was saying and why I was saying it. It was then that I felt something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
A few hours later, when it was just my dad and I, I explained again why I didn’t want our kids being told to keep secrets from us. Not to be a jerk about it, but to clear up any misunderstandings there may have been. I’m not naïve to think my kids will never keep a secret from me, but that wasn’t the point. Again, a pained look came over my dad’s face and he apologized, seemingly from the depths of his soul. He knew he’d done something wrong to his son, his grandson, and it pained him.
The feeling I’d felt earlier then became crystal clear. My dad, now 63 years old, was taking correction from his 32 year-old son with genuine humility and grace. I couldn’t believe it, but then again, I could. That is who Joe Gapinski is. His pride and ego were nowhere to be found in that situation. And that is how he raised me and my brother and sisters. Why would I expect anything different from him?
My dad’s humility in that moment has since stuck with me. There have been a few times over the past two months where I’ve had to discipline Hendrik for something, and I’ve probably taken it a little too far. I feel terrible about being too demonstrative over him, but I think back to a couple months ago and recognize that it’s okay to sincerely apologize to my son if/when I screw up. And I realize it’s a really good thing for him to see me apologize, to see humility done right.
It doesn’t matter what the power dynamic is in any given relationship. At work, with friends, with adversaries, opponents, rivals, with your spouse or kids – if you do something wrong, the right thing to do is to take responsibility for your actions, apologize, and take sincere strides toward being better in the future. In 2019, we don’t see a lot of this on TV or social media so it’s rare to see widespread examples of this happening. But there’s more going on in this world than what’s shown of TV or in social media, so notice the good that is around you everyday. It’s people like my dad who are setting the right kind of examples for generations to come.
The world could use more people like Joe Gapinski. Let’s step up our game and give it a few more. ♦