Back in January, I participated in a Creative Mornings’ Virtual Field Trip with Color Snack where we were asked to choose our ‘word of the year’, then paint it in watercolors. I chose the word UNTETHERED. At the time, I had no idea the significance that word would hold. After a year where we were all physically tethered to our homes and masks, and emotionally entangled in waves of anxiety over the unknown, I had a desire to free myself from the tethers in my life that I had at least, some control over. So I chose the word untethered with the intention of liberating myself from any limiting beliefs and doubts around making myself and my work more visible. As I turned that intention into practical application, I was feeling pretty good about how I was living out my untethered year.
THEN, MY DAD DIED
Last month, my father passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. He had been suffering from the debilitating and degenerative disease for eight years. The medical description of Alzheimer’s is ‘the abnormal deposits of proteins forming amyloid plaques and tangles throughout the brain.’ A tethering of sorts.
With his death, my ‘untethered’ year took on a whole new meaning.
At his funeral service, the priest issued a challenge. He asked those of us left behind to view death as a calling for us to live a boundless life. He asked us to untether ourselves from fear of the unknown and the comfort of the known, to pursue the dreams we have we brushed aside, mend the relationships we have ignored, and move towards purpose we have yet to pursue. Then he asked if we are willing to live as my father did, charting our own path, rather than walk a well paved road.
ABOUT MY DAD
My dad lived a long 85 years. Never taking the well paved road.
The start of his life was unlike most. He was abandoned as a newborn at a marketplace in his homeland of Vietnam. After being alerted about a baby boy for sale at the market, my grandparents who could not have children of their own – rushed to get the baby, who I believe was meant to be theirs. You can see that as a rough start, or a fortunate one. I choose to perceive it as fortunate, because he landed in the arms of my grandparents, who adored him.
My father defied the odds of a childhood ravaged by war and poverty, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the South Vietnamese Air Force; he even earned the privilege at 18 years old to come to the United States and study with the US Air Force. At age 34, he had a respectable career as an Air Force combat pilot, a loving wife – and three children. Then on April 29, 1975 – the Southern Republic of Vietnam fell to the Northern communist party, and we were forced to flee our country. As the roof fell in from above him, the floor was pulled out from below him, and within hours, my father lost his career, his rank – and his identity. On top of that, he lost his home and country.
My dad would have sacrificed his life for his country’s freedom. He filled the void of that dedication by devoting the rest of his life to ensure the security and freedom of his children, in the United States. He rebuilt our life, providing more for us than he could have ever dreamed of for himself in his childhood. This was now his purpose and his mission.
I would often catch him sitting at his desk, with tears in his eyes – reliving good and bad memories. Both, haunted him. The trauma of his life’s experiences tethered him to those memories. Yet he was still able to smile, take us to the park, show up to our school events, and persist; paving an uncharted path to create a meaningful life for his family in his new country.
After my dad passed away, I sat at my desk and I looked at the watercolor painting I made back in January and thought, ‘this has much more meaning than I had intended.’ I painted it with the resolve of untethering myself from any self doubt and fear that was holding me back. When I look at it now it represents my dad. I think about all the fears and the dreams he had to untether himself from to rebuild his life and create ours. And I think of all the emotional tethers, that despite time and distance, he could not free himself from.
Through his death, my dad is now completely untethered – from all of it. My dad was a pilot. I picture him in flight, flying free.
THOSE LEFT BEHIND
We may not be able to unfasten ourselves from the constraints of our mortality until we leave our bodies, but I have been reflecting on where I can continue to untether myself to create a life that my dad made so many sacrifices for. His life journey made it possible for me to intentionally carve my own path. And that cannot be done by walking a straight line, following in someone else’s footsteps, or tethering myself to ideas, insecurities, and fears that do not serve my purpose. I will continue to water the seed planted at my dad’s funeral, and ask myself, ‘Am I willing to live as my father did, and forge my own untethered path’?
I intend to answer YES to that as often as possible.