The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
-- Mahatma Gandhi
'We live like kings," Dad said. The last pill from the colorful assortment in his hand disappeared into his mouth, thus completing Dad's morning ritual of swallowing vitamins, aspirin, and herbal stuff like ginkgo biloba, ginseng, and bee pollen. I remembered the sticker he had placed on the door to the kitchen pantry when his four daughters still lived under the same roof. It read, in bold, black letters printed from one of his high-tech machines at work, " Hey, take your vitamins!" This was one of a series, the others being the sticker on the door that led to the garage, "Hey, lock the door!" and the sticker placed cleverly on the inside of the medicine cabinets in both bathrooms, "Hey, floss your teeth!" Dad set up his breakfast between stacks of paper on his glass dining table: a bowl of Frosted Flakes, a banana, a tall glass of orange juice, and a cup of Lipton tea. I sat across from him with my own bowl of the sugary flakes I grew up eating.
Over the years, Dad has never let us forget how lucky we are to have our health, each other, a job to go to, and a place to call home. While riding with him to Costco the other day, Dad pointed out a man with no arms walking down Washington Street. "That's got to be rough," he said. "I look at him, and I think, I have nothing to complain about."
I used to live with Dad in his Mission Hills condo. Now he shares the space with my sister Jenny, who affectionately calls Dad "Foxtrot Bravo," an aptly suited military nickname that stands for "Fucking Buddha." With the acerbic wit she gleaned from our inner-city New York relatives, Jenny came up with the playful epithet shortly after moving in to my old room. With these two words, she is able to make fun of Dad (who frequently uses the term "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Oscar," or "What the fuck, over?" when he is taken aback by something) for his military background and mock him for his new age-y, Zen-like outlook on the world. Though Dad balks at the lack of respect he says he gets from his children, it is clear to us that he is proud of his youngest daughter's gumption and her superior skills for repartee.
Dad wiped a bead of milk from his whiskers with one hand and retrieved a pamphlet from the pile of papers to his left with the other. He passed it to me and I recognized it as the newsletter from Make-a-Wish Foundation. In it were listed the names of children with life-threatening diseases, their wishes, and the wish-granters who helped make these wishes come true. My father has been a volunteer wish-granter for the nonprofit organization for seven years. When he's not traveling for business, he handles up to three wishes a month.
"Isn't it hard?" I asked him once, years ago, after I had accompanied him to greet a family at the airport and broke down shortly thereafter.
"Not at the time," Dad told me. "During my participation, the family's happy, the kid's happy; what happens, it's magic. They're not focusing on the disease, not lamenting possible outcomes; it's a good time. Then I bid them farewell and I go on to the next kid. I get to be like the butler in that old show The Millionaire ." Dad explained that each episode of the 1950s program began with the butler knocking on someone's door to deliver a check for one million dollars from his boss, a mysterious philanthropist.
I set aside my bowl and skipped through the pamphlet, stopping only for the circled names, those children my father had helped. I thought about some of the stories Dad has told of his Make-a-Wish children and their families -- of how happy Valeria was to receive her princess-themed bedroom, and how excited Carlos was when he got his DJ equipment. With the donations the foundation receives, these kids can have almost anything in the world. It always baffled me that they ask for so little -- a trip to Disneyland, a new computer, to be a fireman for a day.
"I don't know how you do it," I said, more to myself than to Dad, but still, he answered.
"Like I've told you, it's not hard when I'm there," he said. "But many times, it's hard when I leave. I think about how much love is in these families -- it's palpable -- and they don't have a pot to pee in, but, you know, they're tight. And then I think of my kids, you guys are all healthy. Okay, so maybe you're fucked up psychologically," he joked, "but you're all physically healthy."
Dad stood up from the table. "Come with me, I want to show you something," he said. I followed him to the computer set up on a desk in the corner of his bedroom. After a few minutes of scrolling through his e-mail inbox, Dad located the pictures he was looking for and opened a slide show on his screen. He narrated each image for me. They were photos of his last trip to the orphanage in Tijuana that he visits with other members of his church once a month.
"This kid's been there for a while," Dad said, pausing on a photo of a little boy around four or five years old. "He has the longest lashes; you wouldn't believe it." He clicked to the next image of a young girl laughing in the arms of a woman. "They desperately need hugs." Facing the screen, he wiped at his eyes. Then, after clearing his throat, he added, "I stay in the kitchen most of the time. You know, kids have snot and shit all over them, so I tell them ' afuera ,' which means outside." But I know he is kidding, because the next picture is of Dad with a child on his lap, a book in his hands, and a warm smile on his face.
My father, who many people know as C.C., works long hours and traveled over 100,000 miles last year. Yet he still finds time to volunteer for whatever he can. Once a week as an Airport Ambassador for Traveler's Aid, he roams the terminals to find people in need of help. Last week Jenny joined him at a local church to feed homeless people. He ushers at most venues in town (so he can see shows for free), and of course, he is active with Make-a-Wish and lends a hand whenever he can for his home away from home, Midtown Church of Religious Science.
When asked, "How do you fit it all in?" my dad consistently answers, "We all have 168 hours in a week. You do with that time what you wish."
Walking back to the dining room to clear our dishes, I asked Dad, "Why do you spend so much time doing this stuff rather than reading or something?"
"I read a lot," he responded.
"Come on, you know what I mean," I said.
"I do it for a selfish reason. It makes me feel good." We took our seats back at the table and Dad explained further.
"I really believe that if you're doing well, you should reach out and help people. If you can make somebody else's life a little easier, in any instance, on any occasion, you should do it. I know all the cleaning ladies at work by name. When I see somebody shining the floors [they're retired Navy guys], I tell them, 'That looks great!' And you should see their faces. Everybody can use a compliment -- not bullshit, sycophantic, obsequious ass-kissing, but a legitimate compliment. It really is rewarding. And it's easy and it's cheap, it doesn't cost you a fucking dime. And it makes a difference in their face...so I imagine it makes a difference in their life."
Dad's eyes glistened with moisture. "You can change somebody's life for a day," he said. "Before I go to bed, I think, what did I contribute to the world today? What did I do worthwhile? And every day, it's always something." He got up and went to his room, and returned with a Ziploc baggie in his hands. "Here, I want you to put this in your wallet," he said, retrieving a small slip of paper from the bag, which contained at least 50 such slips. "I have one in mine."
I turned the white slip over to see the words printed in large, bold, black letters: " Be Grateful! "
"Thanks, Daddy," I said. "I'll do my best."