THE BLOG

Eulogy To A Janitor, My Father

02/08/2016 02:59 EST | Updated 02/08/2017 05:12 EST
Camillo Zacchia

When I was young I was embarrassed by what my father did for a living, and by extension, him. My father was a janitor.

Not only did he spend most of his days sweeping floors and emptying ashtrays at the airport, but he also mopped out a tavern every night after his shift. He even involved us in his moonlighting. On Sunday mornings my family went to clean that tavern and a Chinese restaurant near the airport. I always came back smelling of beer, cigarettes, and fried wontons. I hated it and made sure no one that I knew ever found out what I did on weekends while they slept in.

I was too self-centered to see this as anything other than the act of a loving man ready to do whatever it took to provide for his family.

In university the contrast really hit me. I started meeting people whose parents were lawyers, authors, and physicians. It was hard for me to even imagine parents speaking the same language as their children. They would talk of weekends at their chalets and vacations to Florida. My father spent his weekends making sausage, foraging for wild mushrooms on Mount Royal, and pulling weeds from the vegetable garden. How was I to relate?

But then I slowly started opening my eyes to the world outside mine. The more I interacted with people, the more I was struck by how independent personality is of job title, education or financial success. Once you get past the inevitable first impression and intimidation caused by a symbol or the weight of a title the real person starts to emerge. You discover personalities that are generous or selfish, self-effacing or boastful, closed-minded or accepting, confident or fearful. In short, it doesn't take long to see that people are people, and that no profession has a monopoly on good ones. It seems so obvious but it never does to the person who feels like the outsider looking in.

The true measure of a man is in his heart and his character. The character defined by his generosity of spirit, by what he makes of the lot life hands him, and by the maturity with which he faces adversity and accepts misfortune.

The measure of a man

So what metric are we to use in measuring a life? The standard yardsticks of title and wealth remain appealing but do not stand up to real-life scrutiny. The true measure of a man is in his heart and his character. The character defined by his generosity of spirit, by what he makes of the lot life hands him, and by the maturity with which he faces adversity and accepts misfortune.

I still get that 'I'm from the wrong side of the tracks' kind of feeling when I'm surrounded by lawyers at a board meeting, or by wealthy people at a fundraiser. But I also know that I have had it pretty good. That fortune stands in stark contrast to my fathers who in many ways got gypped by time, place and body.

My father did not choose to be born at a time when his lot was to become a soldier in WWII. When he was liberated from a German stalag he weighed 39kgs (86lbs). After the war, family money that would have previously helped him buy a small plot of land couldn't get him a loaf of bread. When I witness the resistance that Syrian migrants must overcome, his history becomes all the more poignant.

My father emigrated with no money or education and did whatever it took to make a life of it. He began by shoveling snow off overpasses and doing odd construction jobs. He survived a near fatal fall while repairing a ledge at the Jewish General Hospital. And then his health dealt him more kicks. In his late 40s he began having angina attacks. By 1976 he was barely able to walk across the room without needing to rest. A triple bypass that year was followed by a quadruple in 1989 and angioplasty ten years later.

A broken back and bladder cancer in later years added to the adversity he was forced to deal with. Through it all, he smiled, told stories, waxed philosophically about life, and took genuine pleasure in the success of others.

My father was a janitor. Of that fact I cannot be more proud.

I, on the other hand was not gypped. I never had to share a potato with two other prisoners. I had access to a first-class education. I have never known war. I have never spent a night in a hospital. I chose none of this. I was just lucky. And I was most lucky that this inspirational man was part of my life for so long!

People spend years learning to meditate or doing Tai Chi or yoga in an effort to find mental peace. Research on acceptance-based approaches fills volumes. People do it all in an effort to achieve the second part of the serenity prayer: Change what you can, accept what you can't. Well, my uneducated illiterate father mastered that better than anyone I've known with his wise but simple philosophy: What are you going to do? That's life. Whatever comes, we'll take!

By any measure, my father was a great man who simply did not have the same opportunities as his children. What he did for a living has become a symbol of his work ethic and strength, and a symbol of what he had to face as a young immigrant and child of the war years.

My father was a janitor. Of that fact I cannot be more proud.