A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes you still need to use the words. There is a picture I have from my childhood. It has four people in it. It is on the steps of the house I grew up in as a small child. It is a picture that my mother kept in her house my entire life. My mother is smiling at the at the camera as I sit on her lap. My older sister sits, holding her bear and giving the world her guarded look. My father is caught with his eyes closed and head slightly turned with a thoughtful and distracted look on his face.
When I was young I used to look at that picture often and remember a time when that house was a palace and my older sister was my hero and guardian, regardless of all the stupid stuff. I’d remember the Christmas morning we got “Gobots” and were happier than if we had gotten Transformers. I’d remember the day I got my NES and when my dad would sit on the shag carpet in the living room and we’d try and run past him and jump over him. I’d remember the cable box with 13 separate push buttons for each channel.
Over the years, it just became a picture of family and the importance of the time and place had faded. I remember the bear my sister had and even the incredibly “plastic” feeling of the fur. My mother’s smile never changed. The look my older sister had in that picture hasn’t changed much. She is still a very guarded person. Eventually I reached a point where I felt guilty for considering that to be the snapshot of my family because My little sister wasn’t in it. It’s not for any sad or sinister reason, just that she is 6 years younger than me and I am probably not even a year old in the picture.
Now, we’ve reached a new level of understanding and meaning in that picture. These days I hold that picture as a milestone in my father’s life that I envy and love and cherish and am inspired by. As I’ve explained previously, I am Indian. I am a first generation Indian too. That means I am the first generation of my family to be born in this country. Considering how different the two cultures are, I am an adventurer on a new and unique frontier. But so is my father. In that picture we are sitting on the steps of a house that had his name on it. He had more debt than imaginable and was carving a new home in a new world. He had come so far in the year or so he had been in this country.
He had left his homeland with everything he had known and moved to the other side of the planet in the hopes of raising a family in a place that promised to be better. Knowing my father as I have only recently begun to, he saw the risk, danger and potential. He understood the cost to himself and that it could all fail. He had come here and made it work. He had a house. And he was unsatisfied. He was younger than I am today.
When I first put these pieces together, I was sad. I felt like I was so far from success. As I looked at the picture more, I realized more. My father today is 100 times further than he was in that picture and at least 10 times further than anyone who saw him them would have thought he’d ever get. If you could see the house that the picture was taken in front of and the house I am sitting in right now and writing this, you’d be amazed.
That is the first gift I have taken from this picture this year, but there is a 2nd. If you had known my father at all 30 years ago and if you’ve known him in the last year you will no doubt see the change. He has become a new man and I have found that inspiring. The way he treats strangers and friends and family and even cats has changed so much. He still has a short fuse for some, but if you sit him down and force him to explain why, he usually has a pretty reasonable reason. In general however, I think I can apologize for things and gain forgiveness which I never felt before. I think he is much more open to accepting that others have different perspectives and should not be judged for not seeing the world the way he does.
These changes were inspiring, but looking at that picture, I now wonder what he was thinking then. I wonder if the angry or joyful man with no middle had a middle even then. My childhood is filled with wonderful and terrible memories of my father, but as I look at this picture I am forced to face the undeniable truth that even though he was my father, he was a person. He looks tired and distracted in that picture, probably because he was. He was trying to take care of all of us. He was trying to make a better life. And he has.
It is not often that people are given the credit they are due. It is not often that someone takes the time to say thank you for being imperfect but making yourself better so we know we can do the same. It is not often a child will thank you for your sacrifices in so many words.
Thank you, Dad, for setting a starting point ending point and midpoint in that one picture. Thank you for showing me that imperfection is where we start and perfection is something we will never reach. Thank you for showing me that better is all we can achieve and what it looks like.