Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”
–Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
“As long as you write a sequel.”
That’s what my dad said after he read my book. He said he was comfortable with what I’d written because it was the truth; exactly what had happened with him — the good, the bad, and in some cases, like with his alcoholism, the really, really bad. He was fine with me publishing all of it; he even bragged to several of his friends about the book and his author daughter; but I had to write a sequel about what happened in the years after the book’s ending.
I didn’t plan to ever want his clearance on my book. When I started writing it, we weren’t even on speaking terms, and things stayed that way for the next three years. But just as I neared completion, we started up a relationship again. Which is why I wanted him to at least see what I’d written before it was published. And why I owe it to him now to write that sequel…
Since his part in it ended a lot earlier than I wanted it to.
I’m not quite ready to start writing the sequel yet. I’m really not even ready to write a blog post. I’ve started a few of them since his sudden and unexpected death a month ago, about my favorite memories of the last two years. About the trip we took back to Chapel Hill to see our home state Wisconsin Badgers take on my alma mater, North Carolina. About hiking at Devil’s Lake with our dogs. About filling out our March Madness brackets (he called me the “mad scientist”) and watching the games together. About going to Badger football games. About driving over to his house randomly during the week and taking our dogs on a walk. About spending one last Christmas Eve with him. About watching the Rose Bowl and dozens of other college football games together. About talking to him every day, sometimes several times a day, checking in, telling him about something exciting, or even not exciting that happened.
Most of these half-written posts have put me in tears. This one has been no exception.
My dad had a way of keeping me grounded. He understood me, probably because we were so much alike. We both have sort of an obsessive personality. I worry a lot, but that same trait is also what drives me to keep reaching, dreaming bigger, and improving myself (it’s why I can run 22 miles, when as recently as high school, I could barely run one). My dad knew that, and he also knew how to help me channel my anxiety into those more positive things. He told me a story once about how my grandma had asked him, when I’d decided to leave my corporate job and go into higher education, “does she know what she’s doing?” He’d responded “Mom, it’s Megan. Of course she does.” I sent him an e-mail a few months back about how my book was going to be featured at a conference I was attending. “Can I buy stock in you?” he’d written back. He had a quiet confidence in me that in turn, made me confident in myself.
Some parents start to put pressure on a 29-year-old girl who hasn’t found the right guy yet; my dad didn’t at all. When I’d bring up the topic, he’d almost act annoyed, like I was silly to be even thinking about it. The right person would come along when the time was right and I was ready for it; in the meantime I just needed to focus on me. He never judged the situation, never pressured me or gave too strong of an opinion, he was just there to listen and reassure me that I was okay and on the right track.
When I’d tell him about an exciting idea related to getting kids to college he’d say “you should talk to Nicole about that.” Nicole is the founder of the National College Advising Corps, where I work, and where the proceeds of the book go to. I told my dad her name once a while back, just as I’d told a lot of people, but I’ll bet that the majority of them wouldn’t recall the conversation. My dad always remembered stuff like that, and he was thrilled that I’d found an organization that nurtured my passion.
My dad had found a passion too, starting a group at his church for recovering alcoholics. His drive, along with his experience and recent success in sobriety, made him a perfect candidate for the role, and he’d embraced it. We’d talk all the time about how we’d both found our calling, about life lessons — about paying it forward. We loved to have deep conversations like that. I’d find great quotes and send them to him, and we’d talk about their meaning. I still have about a hundred of those e-mails — thank God for electronic save boxes.
It’s fitting the last time I saw my dad. A fuse blew in my stove one night, so I had to call the repairman. Since the repairman couldn’t get there until 9am, and since I had to leave for work at 9:30, my dad offered to come over and stay while he worked. No complaints, no hesitation, he’d be there. It turned out, he was only there for about 5 minutes. The repairman actually said the issue was one I could’ve fixed myself, but I’ll forever be thankful I didn’t try to, and saw my dad that one last time.
One of the biggest traits I got from my dad is my memory, including a knack for remembering dates. You may notice that a number of my blog posts are published on the same dates as certain events from my book, and this one is no exception. 13 years ago today I gave someone a letter which set off a chain of events that for worse and for better, has defined my life since. The negative fallout, if you haven’t read the back cover of my book (or the book itself), is what inspired me to go to my dream college, which is what has inspired just about everything since then.
If you have read that back cover, you may also have read the question that so many people still ask me — would you do it again? The answer to that question is what makes the story fitting for this post: it doesn’t matter whether I’d do it all over again, because I don’t get to.
Everyone has regrets in their life, things they wished they wouldn’t have done or mistakes they’ve made. Some are bigger than others, some cause more damage than others, and some result in a lot more pain for you or others. But no matter what those things are, the only thing you have in your power to do is to learn from those events and try to do better the next time. That’s it. That’s all you can do. My dad made some major, major mistakes in his life; he hurt a lot of people, myself included, but all he could do, all he did do these past 2 years was work as hard as he could to make it better. And he did make it better. He built a relationship with me that at many points I thought was impossible to build. He made me proud of him again. And now, he’s made me miss him… so, so much.
I told my dad before I left for my month-long trip to Europe last May that I probably wouldn’t be able to talk to him during the trip. It cost $1.50 a minute, so we should just stick to a few e-mails, and I’d see him again in 23 days. 15 days into the trip, I decided I couldn’t take it; and paid the $15 dollars for a phone call. It’s ironic to me now that I’d ever considered cost, since I’d pay about a million more to talk to him right now.
Instead, I’ll be getting to work on that sequel soon. I’d planned to call it “Sunny Skies,” under the guise that these next years of my life would be far less dramatic than the previous ones. Well, I’m not so sure about that any more. After it snowed for two weeks straight following my dad’s funeral, a friend of mine suggested “And Then it Snowed.” It’s up for consideration. All I know is whatever the title, I need to write one.
Anyone who’s ever lost the ‘big game,’ not gotten the ‘big sale’ or that promotion or award, not finished first in a competition, takes away an experience that will change the way they compete the next time. What they do with that experience will determine their outcome the next time. We learn more from what we do wrong than we do from our success.”