Ten years later, my step-father bailed on my mom and me after she got cancer. He wanted a younger and healthier model, I suppose. My mom was in and out of remission with 3 different types of cancer for 15 years before she passed away when I was 24 years old. These life situations definitely created challenges for me as I was growing up. There were times when I was angry, struggled with depression and generally was not the person that I wished to be. Seems a wee bit bleak, right? Perhaps, but I bloody well choose not to see it that way.
I had no power over my dad’s poor choices. Whatever my step-father’s problem was, there was nothing an 11 year old boy could do to influence his decision. With my mom, all I could do was to be there to prepare her meals, do the shopping, pay the bills, and take care of everything I could when she was really ill. When she died, I made sure that she was remembered in the best way possible and I kept the positive aspects of her in my heart. It would have been easy to give in to despair and allow my deleterious life experiences to dictate my path. In truth, there were times when I did tread a little bit down that road. But then I became a father.
Anybody who is a parent understands the visceral changes that alter your psyche once you have a child. As mad as I was at my family members for various reasons, I realized that their poor decisions should no longer dictate the man that I was to become. I had a son, and there was nothing more important than that I raise Julian to be a strong, upright, and just man.
Three letters define my life: PMA. PMA equates to the simple – perhaps simplistic – phrase, Positive Mental Attitude. In fact, I have these letters tattooed on my body as a constant reminder to myself. I have struggled my whole life against these three letters. The negative experiences of my childhood, and the jealousy I have had of others who perceivably led idyllic lives with parents, without poverty, and without struggle, have been my personal constant bogeymen.
One hears the stories, the research, et cetera about how important it is be positive in one’s dealings with the world. This is most definitely easier said than done. Life constantly throws up obstacles, both large and small. There are several methods I utilize to tamp down on the negative, and build on the positive. Music and the communities I belong to are bulwarks against the negative. But most importantly, it is attempting to do good things for others – small and large – that allow me to focus on the positive.
Whatever your central tenets may be based upon – faith or a more humanistic viewpoint – it goes without saying that lending a hand to others is beneficial to relationships and to the soul. I believe that we have an innate tendency towards selfishness. To a certain extent, this is beneficial. We cannot allow others to take advantage of us, and we should always keep in mind our own wellbeing. If we always act selfishly, however, I believe that our being becomes damaged. By aiding others, we prevent ourselves from descending into perpetual selfishness, and thus loneliness and despondency.
In all the negativity of my childhood – to be blunt, all the shit that I was subjected to – there were also a great number of small positives. In 7th and 8th grades, my mom was in and out of the hospital — a lot. When she was home, she was frequently bedridden. I had to work at my mom’s store every day after school and every weekend to ensure that we had enough money for rent and food and the basic necessities of life. While my classmates were blowing their $50, I was at work, praying that we hit our sales goals. At the time it did not feel out of the ordinary, but in retrospect, it seems a little ridiculous for a kid to have to go through.
I have written about this before, in other venues, but there was a wonderful cheese shop in the same building as my mom’s store. Although I always liked cheddar cheese, this store opened me up to a lifelong adoration of the variety of cheeses available. The folks who owned this store knew what my mom and I were going through, how tight money was, and how sick my mom was. Several times a week, they would stop by my mom’s store with cheese and bread or crackers. It was not unheard of that this would be my dinner. I would carefully wrap some of the cheese to bring home to my mom. (Her radiation therapy had wreaked havoc on her taste buds, so I was always trying to find things that she could eat that did not taste like crap for her.) I frequently think back on those folks who would give a 7th grader such wonderful gifts. What they did for us was simple and easy and cost them little, but it made such a difference in my life as a child.
And that’s the thing: their simple, good works have inspired me today to see a positive life beyond all the negative crap. Now, I constantly attempt to objectively evaluate how I treat others. If somebody is going through a week of craziness at the office, I will get them a cup of afternoon coffee from Starbucks. I will get a co-worker a bag of Peppermint Patty’s when I know they are stressed with their workload. If there is somebody whose mannerisms are annoying me, I will take a deep breath and approach the conversation in a different way.
It takes so supremely little to make somebody’s crappy day a little brighter. I actually view it as a net gain. Some little thing I do may infringe a little on my schedule or cost me $4.00, but in the long run, it improves the mood in the office or at home. That makes things easier for everybody. Most importantly, doing these things makes it easier for me to keep the PMA. It is no longer such a monumental struggle to seize and hold on to a positive attitude. I am now actually a positive person – something that I find somewhat incredulous at times.
God knows that I do not always make the best decisions, and I had to learn how to be a dad on the fly due to the fact I didn’t have any great example to follow; but I know that I shall do my best to show my son how a man should try to lead his life.