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Dad's Wisdom: What I Wish I'd Said

father and son talking

Fancy Photography/Veer Images

For a long time I avoided writing a will. I found the whole topic too scary to think about. Then one day I remembered that I'm an adult. (How I managed to forget this while having three children remains a mystery.) I began to think about how to divide my considerable assets: Who would get my Bill Bradley rookie card? Which of my children would be lucky enough to inherit my vintage Dr Pepper "I'm a Pepper" T-shirt? And yet, important as these questions were, when I finally began to think seriously about what I wanted to leave behind, I realized that a traditional will wasn't enough. If a large tree falls on my head tomorrow (for some reason, this is always the first image that comes to mind when I envision my own death), I want my children to have more than a list of memorabilia and dollar amounts. I want them to have the great wisdom I've obtained in the course of my 37 years. So I sat down at my computer to write, waiting for the gravitas to pour out of my fingertips. Then I waited some more. Eventually, I tired of waiting for the wisdom and got up to make myself a tuna sandwich. A month later, a branch fell on our car and crushed the roof, and the idea that I might die at any moment seemed all too plausible. I sat down again to write.

Here are the things I'd like my 6-year-old son and 4-year-old twin daughters to know in the unfortunate event that I'm not around to annoy them with these thoughts in person.

On Falling in Love

Love is mysterious. You might one day have very different feelings about the same boy or girl you call "stinky poopface" today. You may even want to kiss that stinky poopface. And that's okay. I hope more than anything to be at your weddings, but if I don't make it, please know that my greatest wish is that you'll each find someone loyal and kind, someone who will stand by you and love you even when you're so bad you deserve a time-out. I especially hope that it's someone who will understand better than anyone else how to make you laugh—though if the person is making you laugh only by executing loud farting noises in public, this might not be such a good thing.

On Embracing Religion

I hope you will find joy and comfort in the Jewish traditions that have been passed on to you. In particular, I hope you'll one day realize that Judaism is about more than Hanukkah gifts and whipping each other with ritual prayer shawls. I know that religion can sometimes seem boring, but many of these traditions have been passed on for thousands of years. And I think there's a reason they've stuck around. You're always asking me about God and how He can do so many cool things or let bad things happen. I try to pretend that I have the answers. But the truth is, the questions never go away. Your papa is as confused as you are. But if religion can't explain everything, it can make the questions feel less scary and overwhelming. As the great Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav put it, the entire world can sometimes feel like walking across a very narrow bridge. The main thing to remember is not to let your fears stand in the way of the journey.

On Reading Great Books

I know that right now this might be hard to believe, but the pleasures of the imagination extend well beyond watching the same episode of The Backyardigans over and over. I hope that as you grow older you will discover that you share my love for literature. Books can—and should—be entertaining, but literature is about much more than entertainment. The greatness of a great story is in the way it reveals the thoughts and emotions that make us who we are. If you turn out to be anything like me, you'll probably feel really alone sometimes. And books are the best reminders we have that we're not alone, that on the inside almost everyone has the same crazy and scary feelings. And please don't be afraid to challenge yourself with difficult books. Probably you won't understand some books even after reading them five times, and that's perfectly okay. You will still seem smart when you talk about them at parties, and, because no one else understands these books either, no one will be able to tell you that you're not making the least bit of sense.

On Being a Kind Person

I've told you to stay away from strangers many times, and you should keep doing that. But, get this: Once you're older, you're actually supposed to be nice to strangers. This might seem hard to believe at a time when you won't even share a granola bar with a hungry member of your immediate family, but I think you'll find that what you do for others will matter more to you than what you do for yourself. I'm sure that you will grow up and accomplish all sorts of amazing things, but please remember that nothing could make me more proud of you than the simple knowledge that you're nice.

On How to be Happy

Life is full of many ups and downs. One day, you're the line leader; the next day, Miss Debbie has you sitting in the time-out chair because you took Jane's pudding during lunch. I'm sorry to report that these highs and lows never really go away. It absolutely kills me to think about it, but you will go through some very sad moments in your life. But that doesn't mean you won't be happy. Scientists who study happiness have found that most of us are very good at recovering from tragic events. The key to happiness, surprisingly, is to not overreact to the small everyday annoyances that leave you wanting to stick your head in a fan. To take a completely random example: If your spouse makes unusually loud slurping noises while eating cereal, it's probably better to leave the room than to make a point by getting your own bowl and eating so loudly that you start choking and your spouse has to slap you on the back and bring you a glass of water.

On Memories that Last

If you're reading this, it means that your papa is no longer around to clean up the shocking amount of food that amasses under your feet during every meal. But I think you'll find that memories can be a wonderful way to keep loved ones in your life, and regularly thinking about the long list of wonderful things I did for you can only be healthy. But, all joking aside, please don't let your mourning get in the way of your life or feel bad if you forget to think of me sometimes. What I want is for you to move forward. I'm sure you'll miss me sometimes, but you've still got the best mother in the entire world, so I know you'll be okay. And though I don't yet know how it will end, I know I've had a good life. After all, I've had the extraordinary pleasure of being your father. There is nothing more I could have asked for.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Parents magazine.