Dad

This is not my typical blog post. On Cinco de Mayo, we will be celebrating my dad’s 90th birthday. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share with you some of his amazing life.

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When dad was born on May 5, 1927 — 90 years ago — he almost died.

His mother, my late abuela, prayed to St. Anthony. If her son lived, she would offer him to God’s service and name him Antonio. Anthony.

Dad survived. And his life has indeed been of service to others. Interestingly, his namesake, St. Anthony, was the greatest preacher of the Middle Ages and one of the finest orators of all time.

Dad became this, too.

But dad wasn’t always this way. He was a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up in poverty. He was shy.

Because of his race, he experienced prejudice in South Texas. Many of his classmates weren’t pleased when he was named the high school’s valedictorian. Mexicans weren’t supposed to be smart.

Dad went on to study radio engineering and worked at Pan American Airways. While all this was happening, he and my mother, from Tennessee, were writing letters to each other and fell in love. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/a-love-story/ They married and started raising a family in Donna, Texas.

His career then morphed into television engineering at KRGV-TV in Weslaco, and he would often bring us as children there. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/fame/ With a growing family, dad needed more income and left the TV station to find better employment.

He took a job with the Philco Corporation where he worked as a civilian consultant to the military in South Korea. He was responsible for helping set up the first TV station in post-war Korea.

But we weren’t able to go as a family. South Korea was still considered a hardship area. So we stayed behind in Houston, with my aunt and uncle helping my mother with our care. Every day the mailman brought a surprise from Korea — dolls, silk kimonos, toys and books.

After a year, dad returned to the U.S. and the Philco Corporation transferred him to the Philadelphia area.

Among his many duties, he helped develop the high-resolution cameras, attached to an airplane, that detected the growing build up of missiles in Cuba — that led to the Cuban missile crisis. Dad also helped set up the TV monitors at NASA in Houston.

His work then took him to KYW-TV in Philadelphia as chief engineer during the time of The Mike Douglas Show. There, he met many movie stars and celebrities. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/kissing-shirley-temple/

During all this time, however, dad was also involved in much more. At some point in his early career, he took the Dale Carnegie course and discovered a gift — inspirational and motivational speaking.

From there, dad became involved in a program called Adventures in Attitudes and branched out on his own, giving lectures to help inspire others, to help them become the best they could be.

He offered talks such as “You were born for greatness, why settle for less?” and “The ABCs of greatness.”

His public speaking extended to the Crusillo movement, where he was one of two men to help bring this Christ-centered movement to the Philadelphia area from Spain.

Dad lectured around the world, not only for the Crusillo, but speaking about other spiritual and self-help topics in churches, schools, veterans’ hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and to troubled youth. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/the-nellie-nobody-knows/

Dad’s sole desire was to help others and to serve. I remember him saying, “If only one person is helped and comes to know God, it’s worth it.”

Stories are told that healings happened when dad spoke. Emotional healings, but sometimes physical healings. After one of his talks, he counseled a woman who had cancer. After hearing her story, he told her she needed to forgive her ex-husband. She found it difficult, but she finally did, from her heart. Later, she reported to him that she had been healed.

Prior to one of his talks — an important one — he was seized with an uncharacteristic fear. While in the shower he heard Mother Mary’s voice: “Do not be afraid,” she said. “I am sending my angels before you.”

Dad wrote two books and recorded numerous CDs of his talks. He was not part of the digital age, but at some point, my hope is that I — or one of his family — will make these available via social media.

Throughout his 90 years, dad has helped countless people, given tirelessly, and helped his nine children along the way. He helped us move, provided money, offered counsel, prayed with us, cried with us, loved us, forgave us when we made mistakes. He went on to do the same with his grandchildren.

The stories are countless and if anything, dad himself was the consummate story teller — until his stroke four years ago. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/the-zen-of-caregiving/

That’s the day God took away the one gift dad cherished most — his speech.

And yet, dad still speaks with his eyes and his smile. He is still there, giving. How?

He helped me learn in the deepest way, as I help care for him, that loving service to others is the greatest gift we can give. I now know this in my being as never before.

So this Friday on Cinco de Mayo — Antonio (Tony) Zaragoza Zuniga, true Mexican-American that he is — will mark 90 years of a life well lived. And on Saturday, May 6th, his family and friends will be there to celebrate him. They are arriving from all corners — Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, California, from next door and a few blocks away.

We will honor dad at a party with Mexican food, Margaritas, mariachi music, laughter, family stories. And we will cherish him. We will love him.

Gracias, Papi. Por todo.

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Simple gifts

The other day I walked in the park.

As I ambled by the swings and slides, a woman who looked like she might be a grandmother was with her granddaughter. The child was perhaps four years old. Her blonde hair tousled in the wind as she bent down and picked up a frayed, sad-looking dandelion.

She came bounding toward me — ignoring her grandmother’s calls to come back — and said: “Look! I’m going to give this to my mom when I get home.”

“That’s beautiful,” I said as she held it toward me, beaming.

Then she began stomping on the ground in her purple-and-pink glittery sneakers, looking down at them, trying to make them “do” something.

“No more light,” she said.

Her grandmother came toward me and smiled. “They used to light up more but I guess they’ve lost some of whatever it was.”

I told her to have fun and walked away thinking, how often have I lost my light, whatever it is that I once had. And what has been causing me to lose it?

Perhaps the clutter of many things. Holding on to worries. Agendas. How I think life “should” be instead of accepting how it is. In other words, not letting go, not simplifying.

When I was in the workplace, there was a saying some of you may know: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. If I’m going to be totally honesty here, I have a personality that makes things harder than they should be. I tend to make things more complicated.

I used to get frustrated with that part of me. Now I have come to accept that it’s all part of the unique package that makes me who I am. I am someone who still likes to hold on, someone still learning to “let go” and simplify — and someone who is still trusting in faith there is a Higher Power who moves life along in divine right time and flow.

I am also gentle, or at least learning to be, with all those parts of myself, as I would with a young child. As I might with that little girl in the park.

Would I have yelled at her and told her, “That’s an ugly dandelion!”? Never. Then why would I berate those inner child parts of me that need love and even more love? Especially those parts that delight in the simplest of things?

The older woman I am becoming also needs that love, especially as she is often — not by choice — having to let go and simplify her life. In fact, children and the aged both dwell in a certain simplicity that no longer requires agendas, pride, ego, money, promotions, “things” or whatever it might be. They are content with what is, in the moment.

To be truthful, I am still coming to terms with the losses of my life’s journey as I age. A friend of mine told me he feels like he’s lost his mojo. I understand. And one better, I often feel, as the Mad Hatter said to Alice, “‎You’re not the same as you were before. You were much more… muchier… you’ve lost your muchness.”

Sue Monk Kidd, one of my favorite writers, says this:

“Finally, I began to write about becoming an older woman and the trepidation it stirred. The small, telling ‘betrayals’ of my body. The stalled, eerie stillness in my writing, accompanied by an ache for some unlived destiny. I wrote about the raw, unsettled feelings coursing through me, the need to divest and relocate, the urge to radically simplify and distill life into a new, unknown meaning.”

Like Sue Monk Kidd, I am learning to radically simplify, to distill life into a new unknown meaning.

At the heart of it, I believe that’s why simplifying poses such a challenge — we are face-to-face with some “new unknown meaning.” It isn’t how it used to be. We start as pure beings, simple and free, then gather a lot of “guck” along the way.

Now, in our later years, we are being stripped away to uncover the beauty that has been there all along. We simplify. And while it may be challenging, it is also freeing.

Even my prayer life has entered into simplicity. I am breathing in love, breathing out love. And like writer Anne Lamott, I am saying these three simple prayers:

Help me. Thank you. Wow.

I am learning to be like a child again, delighting in a dandelion. And learning to accept and love the older woman, finding it’s OK to lose some of my muchness. To stomp on my sneakers to discover perhaps a new and more engaging light.

When I simplify and let go, it opens up space to be free. To dwell in the now. To be the soul and body I was created to be.

And that simply makes me say “Wow!”

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Holy remembrance

The rain finally stopped and dad and I sat on the deck. The sky had cleared to a deep blue , the birds trilled and a warm breeze surrounded us, tinkling the wind chimes.

A box of photos sat at my feet. Dozens of dusty black-and-white and color snapshots, corners and edges aged and yellowed with time.

My brother had carted the box out of the garage. We will display some of them at dad’s party when we celebrate his 90th birthday on May 6th. His birthday is really Cinco de Mayo — true Mexican-American that he is — but with so many family flying in, we are honoring him on May 6th.

As I browsed through the photographs, a surge of nostalgia swelled up in my heart. There we all were — family — in our youth. Mom and dad, looking like movie stars, dressed in sequined gown and tux ready to go to a party at KYW-TV where dad once worked.

And me and my siblings, at backyard barbecues, sitting at the long wooden picnic table, chomping into a burger and holding up a brew or a soda, hamming it up for the camera. My nieces and nephews, still toddlers, playing tag on the green grass, or rolling around in it, their lives still ahead of them.

I began to show the photos to dad. He has limited speech capacity since the stroke, but he squinted and smiled and kept saying “wow” and “joven” which means young. Yes. We were young.

As I looked at the photos in the box, each one evoked a memory. Of our family. Our lives. Each had captured a moment in time. I came to see this remembrance as holy — and at the heart of all spiritual practice.

This week, as I write this, we are in the midst of many sacred memories. For Christians, it is Holy Week and in the Jewish faith, Passover.

Jesus said he yearned to share the Passover with his disciples. His desire was to create eternal memories of the heart, that he might live on in us when he shared bread and wine and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

For those celebrating the Passover, a seder meal commemorates the freedom of the Isaraelites from slavery and into a promised land. In fact, the Jewish people were commanded to remember.

Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Remember that the Lord took you out of the bondage of slavery. “Remember” is a biblical mandate and the Passover story that initiated a commitment to memory.

This time of year is one for remembering the Divine’s intervention into a troubled world, freedom from enslavement, triumph of life over death.

Why is it important to remember? Many reasons. Perhaps most important, memories give us identity, show us who we are as individuals and within the larger community. They ensure that life events will not be lost, but learned from, treasured and carried forward. They bind us together. In love. In life. In death.

So as I sit with dad, pouring over photographs, I am on a journey of remembering. Trips to Nashville and the hills of Red Boiling Springs, TN; birthdays and my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary; my grandmother’s funeral, Christmases, trips to Ireland and vacations in Florida.

Dad and I smile at the people we once were — slimmer, sillier, unwise, hopeful, blissful in our ignorance of what was to come. And I marvel at the people we have become — strong, stretched, suffering with stroke or illness, resilient, prayerful, loving.

I see myself in some of these photos and I’d like to go back to that young woman who was me. Tell her about life. That parts of it will be happy, some of it will be painful, but to hold on to the moment. To savor it, no matter how it may feel, because it will never come again. This is what I would tell her.

Dad tires of looking through the photos. I put them away and we go back inside the house. He is moving slower these days with his walker. But on May 5th we will celebrate the memories of 90 years of a life well lived and well loved. We will look at the photos and “ooh” and “aah” and call to mind the stories they evoke.

And we will be blessed in those sacred memories.

We will be glad and rejoice in the now.

 

 

Who are you?

Strange things happen as you grow older. You start to lose things. Hair, energy, car keys, lists to help you remember, and why in the world you walked into that room. What was I going in there to get?

But sometimes, loss can be a blessing. It strips down and shows us what is no longer necessary.

Most important, I believe we begin to lose our false self. What is that?

In his book Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, says:

“Our false self is who we think we are. It is our mental self-image and social agreement, which most people spend their whole lives living up to — or down to.”

For many of us, this becomes an all-consuming effort. We create this other persona that we feel society wants, or our family and friends expect of us. For me, it was years spent working in the writing field, for newspapers and magazines, and a few stints in the corporate world.

As an ambitious young working woman, my persona was about fine clothes, a good salary, making an impact with my words, earning writing awards, my by-line.

Were those wrong? No. All of those were necessary and part of my journey. I had to pay bills after all. And on some level, writing offered me an avenue to use my gift of writing to educate and inform many people.

But at some point, I began to realize there was more to life than this. These “things” were not at the deepest level about my true self.

One of my favorite authors Sue Monk Kidd writes: “In our youth we set up inner myths and stories to live by but around the midlife juncture these patterns begin to crumble. It feels to us like a collapsing of all that is, but it’s a holy quaking.”

That “holy quaking” can lead us to our true self. And what is that?

Simply put, the true self pulls us closer to the Divine, to God. I think children and animals show us how to do this best. They have no hidden agendas, take no offense at slights, but simply delight in the purity of being themselves. They are who God created them to be.

A friend of mine scolded his dog one day for jumping into a basket of clean clothes. But the dog didn’t know she had done anything wrong — she was living in pure innocence and joy as God had made her — and just as quickly forgot about her “mistake” and went about playing and wagging her tail.

I’ve also had the privilege of knowing a handful of people in my life who I sensed were living in the integrity of their true selves. They accepted themselves, knew who they were, both flaws and sanctity — and in their presence, I felt an ease and grace.

As we move closer to our true selves, I believe the more loving parts of ourselves are magnified. And we begin to accept those parts that hide in façade or selfishness. Or they simply disappear in the light of that love.

Discovering our true selves is not so much about what we do, but what God does, says Rohr.

“And what God does—what life does—is gradually destabilize the supposed boundaries of the small self so we can awaken inside of the Large Self, which we call God. This usually happens through experiences of great love or great suffering or inner prayer journeys that allow the private ego to collapse back into the True Self, who we are in God.”

For me, the journey toward discovering the true self has come late in life in caring for my father. In honesty, all facades and pretenses crumbled in the call to be of loving service and this ongoing experience has graced me to see myself as I am in God’s eyes — holy and flawed, sacred and scared, selfish and loving.

But I am — like everyone else — always in process with this. Living from our true selves is a journey, or as Rohr says, “a dance between the loneliness and desperation of the false self and the fullness of the true self, which is ever re-discovered and experienced anew as an ultimate homecoming.”

So, I find as I am growing older, I am also growing up — spiritually. Even better, waking up. And like most of us, I am still learning to navigate the mysterious pathways to who I really am. Warts and all.

Home to my true self. In God. In the divine. In love.