Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

Archive for the month “May, 2021”

What Is A Moral Compass?


I was asked by someone following “Paul’s Heart,” to go into more detail about this “moral compass.” What exactly is it? Simply put?

Chances are in your lifetime, you have seen this image (though not this specific one), depicting an individual, facing a dilemma, and struggling to make a decision. In television and other media, when in that position, two “voices” appear, one at a time, to give their input on why a certain decision should be made. Decisions can have minor or major implications, especially if not made “morally.”

Even though this is an often used example of morality, the idea of doing the right thing, is not necessarily a religious tenet, though clearly it is mentioned quite a bit in bibles. You can have no religion, and still have quality morals. Why? Because morals are nothing more than knowing the difference between right and wrong.

But while cartoons and television programs are normally fiction, we do not have have specters or spirits routinely appearing on our shoulders to have a debate with us, in making a decision we face. We do however, have people in our lives, that we look up to, who often support us in our daily lives, whether intentionally or not, make us stop and go “hmmm,” to think about something we are about to do.

I mentioned in my previous post, my first “moral compass,” was my grandmother, pictured on the right. As a child, of course she did all she could to steer me in the correct directions when it came to right or wrong. And there would be guilt, if I chose the “wrong” direction because I would eventually have to face her. I lived with her. And those times, that I made those wrong decisions, they could not be hidden, because there was physical proof, usually in the form of cuts and bruises.

By the end of my childhood, I definitely knew the difference between right or wrong. I also had a strong foundation of looking out for others, and usually before and at the expense of my own needs (which by the way is not necessarily a good thing – think airplane oxygen mask and who is supposed to put theirs on first and why). When it came to making decisions in my youth, I had a great foundation.

Of course, as an adult, the decisions, and consequences become much greater. Thoughts can no longer be decided as they would at the level of a sitcom or cartoon. Real life, grown up life, requires responsible and moral thought processes.

And early on in my adulthood, my grandmother was still there for me as that support. Like many kids, I could get mad at my mother, quite mad in fact. I will never forget how quickly she would snap back, “YOU ONLY HAVE ONE MOTHER AND YOU MUST RESPECT HER!” Yes, she shouted that at me, one of the only times that she ever did raiser her voice. I had heard legend of just how tough she really was in her youth, standing at an unintimidating height of four foot eleven inches, and it was her moments like mentioned above, that not only made me listen, but never test her.

Career choices were also something that she played a role in. My grandmother would not only offer suggestions, but also support how to get from “point A to point B.” There was never-ending encouragement also. Even when it came to changing jobs, regardless of better opportunities, she always helped me to see everything before the decision was made.

And there would be difficult times as well that I faced, and my grandmother was there for me. One of those, was when I made the decision to file for divorce from my first wife. I remember talking to my grandmother about the possibility of it, and she was not pleased with me. She was a traditional woman. And it was not easy for her to have accepted that her own daughter, and youngest son, also experienced divorces themselves. My grandmother had married late, but still my grandparents were married over thirty years until my grandfather passed away.

I do not know how my grandmother dealt with my mother’s and uncle’s divorces as she did not talk about it. But I do know that she had opinions on my situation. My prior experiences with my “moral compass” had led me to believe that I would be put through the “ringers” (an expression for being “squeezed”) before any decision was made.

My first marriage was not a bad one as a whole. We did not fight. Actually, we got a long pretty well, including at the most difficult times in our lives, my battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and her near death head-on car collision. But we did have one issue that ended up leading to a major problem, our communication was horrible. We did not talk, hardly at all about things that mattered to each of us. Sure, we talked about things that needed to get done, or where to go, but nothing about stuff that was really that important to us.

One day, that came to a head, in a bad way. One of the things I had always looked forward to, was becoming a parent. And this was one thing my wife knew. Years later, during a rare exchange of tense emotions, things got said, and looking back, I can honestly say that I am not sure whether they were actually true, meant to hurt, or just a total misunderstanding. But it led to me filing for divorce, immediately. I would offer no second chances. One comment that would change our lives forever, left her lips. “Don’t you think if I wanted to have kids, we would have had them by now.” I was mortified.

To this day, I still do not know if she actually meant it, nor do I think about it (other than writing it currently). But when I went to my grandmother, to tell her of my decision, I could see the hurt on her face. I am sure that my grandmother had gone through all kinds of challenges with my grandfather and there certainly were things that upset her about her children’s divorces. This situation seemed to have a different impact on her. Under normal circumstances, I should have expected a righteous “until death do us part” speech as the wedding vows imply. Instead, I got compassion.

My grandmother knew what I had gone through in my battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, to get through all the toxic treatments. But I had survived it, and that meant that I could still reach my dreams, especially of parenthood. I spoke of nothing else. She knew how important this was to me.

In the end, we did try to resolve this dilemma, but I was faced with the concerns over time, how much time do I have left to pursue being a parent? I was in my mid-thirties and if I were to work on my marriage, and in the end, age out, unable to have kids, it would have been all for naught. It was not good enough for her to simply say, “I didn’t mean what I said.” That only left me trying to figure out which was going to be the truth, and which was not.

My “moral compass” had only one thing to offer, “you need to do what you must.” Feeling I had no other choice, I filed for divorce, in hopes that I might still have an opportunity at parenthood.

When my grandmother had passed, it may sound cliche, but I was definitely lost without that “moral compass.” I often found myself making impulsive decisions like a bull in China shop.

Sometimes the decisions were correct. Sometimes the decisions were wrong. I had no rhyme or reason behind what helped me to make my decisions. Whatever happened happened. This chaotic way of life was not how I was raised, nor was it really productive. But just as someone wandering a dessert or forest without any direction, because they have no compass to see which way to go, that is how my life was going. Without a “compass,” I was lost.

And then, enter not one, but two new “moral compasses,” my daughters.

From the days that they were placed in my arms, every decision that I have ever made, was made with the consideration of how it would impact my daughters. Every decision. I have not ever wanted to disappoint them with a bad decision (not to say that I have not), but I know that my daughters look up to me, as every parent should hope.

And as if coming around 360 degrees full circle, I realized a long time ago, that I will be their moral compass as well. Being older, I take all the opportunities I can to teach how “big” the little fibs can lead to something disastrous, the importance of prioritizing, and how things matter in the big scheme of things. It is important that they understand that they sound more intelligent not using foul language in general conversations, and one of the foundations of earning respect is demonstrating responsibility and accountability. But just as I did with my grandmother, it only happens when you know that compass helps you to get where you are going.

Finding Meaning In Life


I have a friend who shares two things every morning. I look forward to them each day. One is for me, one is for my older daughter. For my daughter, there is a post celebrating the birthday of an artist from someone over the world, over time, an example of their work, perhaps a quote from the artist themselves, and an observation from my friend. I share this post with my daughter, an aspiring artist herself, just so that she can see the variety of expressions that she has yet to tap into.

The other post my friend shares, is a daily devotional. To her credit, she does both of these posts daily, so needless to say, I count on seeing them, and will be quite worried for her, if she happens to miss a day. This deep thought each day is not necessarily complicated, yet is powerful enough to actually make you stop riding your own personal “merry-go-round” and go “hmmmmm.”

This morning’s post from her did exactly that, three photos “you find meaningful or memorable.” This may seem like a difficult task, especially when opening up my laptop, going to my photographs, and seeing more than 100,000 of them (from the day I started saving them digitally), and I have fairly many when I used to actually print them out, but there are actually three photographs that do have true meaning to me, as they have shaped who I am today.

My grandmother, pictured on the right of her younger sister, passed away in 1988 following a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, her second cancer that she faced, breast cancer being the first, thirteen years earlier (my first personally known cancer survivor). The picture does not show just how tall she is not, only that she is shorter than her sister. But my grandmother was a very strong woman, physically and emotionally. With my mother working a second shift job during the week, it was my grandmother who I spent most of my time with when I was not in school.

I give credit to my grandmother for shaping me who I am today. That path took so many detours however, when she passed away. My grandmother was my “moral compass.” In other words, if she was not telling me her opinion of decisions I was making in person, I heard her “voice” in my head when we were apart. One of her main tenets was always, “take care of others before yourself.”

While some may see this as an admirable trait, to make yourself the last priority, that comes at a price. The mother of a dear friend from high school many decades ago, once told me, “you cannot expect someone to love you if you do not love yourself first.” It was not that I did not feel good about myself. I just did not think of myself to make myself a priority.

In 1988, I had to make myself a priority, as I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system. I could not afford to focus on anyone else, though I definitely tried.

But throughout the rest of my grandmother’s life in my adulthood, my grandmother was there, offering her input with many challenges that I faced, not afraid to raise her voice, or speak in “Pennsylvania Dutch”, the equivalence of a child speaking under their breath so as not to understand what was said. My grandmother always seemed to keep me on the straight and narrow path with my decision, pausing me to at least think about actions, and consequences and no matter what, to make sure that I was respectful to all when I made that decision.

Yesterday marked the 7th anniversary of my father’s passing from lung cancer. There are not many photos of he and I together when I was younger, something I swore I would never let happen with my daughters, much to their dismay I have not disappointed myself.

My parents divorced when I was three, and custody went the way that it does in many divorces, not good when it came to the fathers, especially in the 1970’s. Eventually I would become estranged from my father, part his choice, part my choice. This is a time period we would both regret later in life. But as the photo shows, we did work things out. And it gave us an opportunity to learn about each other, and what he now saw in me, and what I “got” from him.

I may have missed 1/3 of my life with him through my childhood, but the other 2/3 gave me so much back, opportunities. Relying on childhood friends for experiences with their fathers, I finally got to develop a father/son relationship of my own. And in the end, I would face the biggest of all challenges that a “child” often faces, caring for that parent as he faced several health challenges, including lung cancer.

He was there when my health began to fail due to my late effects from cancer treatments years earlier. My dad got to see the adoption of both of my daughters, his granddaughters. And unlike his biological granddaughters, my daughters had their own impact on my Dad, not known for being the “cootchie coo” kind of parent, they cracked his gruff shell. As my Dad retired from landscaping, he had informed me that he would take on driving a school bus. And I was like, “but Dad, school busses have kids on them.” That was not a punchline. I was being serious.

My father ended up driving elementary school children, the same age as his granddaughters. And every day, there was a set of twins, of Asian heritage, that he told me, reminded him of his granddaughters. This brought a smile to my dad’s face ever time, a smile I do not ever remember seeing so strongly. But he enjoyed all of the children. Say what? I could not believe it, my Dad was a school bus driver, and not only liked it, but the kids all liked their grandfatherly bus driver.

One of the most memorable things that happened toward the end, as he was forced into retiring from driving the school bus, on his last run, he was given a “get well” card from his “kids” and parents, who were so grateful for all the safe transportation that he provided. I recall him telling me how uncomfortable this made him originally, that he had never had so many, if any care for him, like the way he felt at that moment.

The third photo is a no brainer, the day my daughters came into my life. That moral compass that I lost back in 1998 with passing of my grandmother, was restored in 2004, and reinforced in 2006 with their adoptions. I was now a parent myself, and that mattered to someone, actually two someone’s. Decisions I would make, affected not only me, but them as well. They would become the driving force behind me fighting for my health with all of the challenges that I have faced, and will continue to face. Things I would do or say, now had two sets of ears and eyes, documenting everything I did and said. My actions would be their examples as they grow up. They had now become, my new “moral compass.”

The values I learned from my grandmother and the importance of a parental relationship that I learned from my father, are now an integral part of the relationship I have with my daughters today. And life is good. Each day, one now in adulthood, another approaching it (a day that too many times I almost never got to see because of my health issues), I have expanded my goals in life to include one final chapter myself, one that my doctor promised me, that he would help me see, my daughters graduating, getting married, and becoming a grandparent myself.

Like everything else in my life, that path has not gone smoothly or perfectly, but we have made it the best that we could along the way. And it is not only good. It is great!

And those are my photos that have meaning or have given me great memories.

Remembering My Dad


I still miss you so much Dad.

It was seven years ago today, that my Dad passed away from lung cancer. The loss is still as hard today as it was back then.

I wrote the story “My Dad Was Just Like Me” several years ago (it is on this blog located in the “pages” section), and was blessed to have it performed live as a staged reading.

Please enjoy.

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