On cultivating kindness

As I do two or three times a week, I called my dad in the other day to chat. I am among those extremely lucky 59-year olds who still have a dad. My grandfather died in his 60s when my father was in his early 40s. It’s been just wonderful to have my father around so long. Still vigorous at 88, he walks a mile or two each day, but slowly.

About 25 years ago, he developed poor circulation in his legs and began to suffer from intermittent claudication. Intermittent claudication is muscle pain caused by poor circulation due to blockage in the arteries of the legs. With exercise, the oxygen demand increases, and if the blood can’t get to the legs in proper volume, the muscles ache from lack of oxygen. It’s not an agonizing pain unless one does not stop to rest and let the muscles recover. His doctor said “walk!” and my father has obeyed. Accordingly, walking with my dad is a start and stop affair, punctuated by his comments, such as “Hold on, my damn leg hurts,” or “Gotta stop. This stupid leg!”

Now, compared to other folks his age, my dad’s like a spring chicken. He walks without assistance, and is steady on his feet. He uses no walker or cane, and declines a hand to help him up. Quick-witted, he interacts with the teeming crowds in New York City like the Brooklyn boy he is, charming, funny and full of fun. My dad’s an upbeat guy; he enjoys life and it’s obvious to anyone. And so it was that one day last year, while we strolled together down 72nd Street, I noticed how often he cursed his leg and expressed his great frustration. For one blessed with mobility, I was surprised at his anger at himself, and decided that at lunch I’d bring it up.

While I am and will always be the “kid,” at some point in our lives, my dad began to listen to my advice instead of only giving me his. And so it was at lunch that day I told him I’d noticed how harshly he spoke about his leg, and that I was curious about it. “Tell me Dad,” I said, “Looking back, it seems to me that your legs have done pretty well for you, don’t you agree?”

“How do you mean?” he replied.

“Well,” I continued, “most folks your age use canes, or walkers or even sit in wheelchairs. And here you are on two feet walking a mile around the city. Your legs, despite the pain, deserve gratitude, not curses.”

He looked at me, then down at his soup. “What do you suggest?” he said.

“I suggest cultivating kindness, Dad.” I continued, “Kind thoughts, kind words, and feelings of appreciation. This is your body, these are your legs; they have served you well for a long time. They have earned your kindness.” He was silent for a while and ate his soup. Finally, he looked at me,

“Ok. You’re right. I appreciate what you have said.” He smiled, and his eyes were a bit teary. “From now on I will speak nicely to my sweet legs.”

I asked about his soup. He asked about my grilled fish. We talked about my “kids” and how they were doing. I could sense he was getting antsy and ready to go. After a short while, we got up to leave.

“Next time,” I chimed in, “we’ll have a talk about cultivating patience.”

“Don’t push it, kid,” he smiled, and headed briskly to the door. “Who’s got time to cultivate patience!”