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God Squad: Drawing on memories of my dad

My dad, Sol Gellman, died 10 years ago near Father’s Day. I think of him often but always on his birthday, and always on the day he died and always on Father’s Day.

In honor of all fathers, alive or alive with God, I offer my memories of 10 years ago. I do it so that you who still have fathers will find some way this Father’s Day to thank them from a place in your heart that is too often silent of thanks. This is what I want you to know:

Sol Gellman was my dad and he could draw upside down. Dad was an architect, and he possessed this amazing skill so that the client would see what he was sketching without Dad having to turn the paper around. I could not draw upside down then or now, but at least I have come to understand that there is a part of Dad’s graphic genius that is transferable to me and to all of us. We can all learn how to draw upside down. After 10 years of mourning my dad’s death, I now realize that drawing upside down is really just learning to see things through other people’s eyes.

Drawing upside down is a skill we can all possess — it just requires learning and love. When we help our children not to just follow the rules we set for them but to understand the wisdom of those rules, we are drawing upside down. When we encourage our employees or those we supervise to stop us and ask us to explain something until they understand it fully, we are drawing upside down. When we understand how our words can cut others without our intending to cut them, we are drawing upside down. When we try to see the world through the eyes of a different race, culture or religion, we are drawing upside down.

Many of my teachers were stunningly brilliant. Many of them had mastered a kind of synthetic knowledge that spanned many intellectual disciplines and different ages of human thought. However, some of them could only teach me right side up. The worst of them merely displayed their brilliance, but did not care how my fellow students or I were seeing their word pictures. They just allowed us to watch as they scorched the heavens with their eloquence and humiliated us with their intellectual superiority. I left in awe of them, but I did not leave educated by them. Fortunately, I had other teachers, like Dad. They knew more than I knew, but they held back and adjusted their perspectives to what I could see so that I could learn what they already knew.

There is one special occasion where learning how to draw upside down is essential: the sacred task of comforting people in grief. Learning how to express condolences well is actually quite difficult. I think this is because most of us are terrified by death and therefore have no idea what to say. So we end up saying foolish, but well-intentioned things like, “I’m so sorry,” as if we were apologizing for something we did. Or worse, we say, “Don’t worry, everything will be OK,” when the truth is that everything will not be OK if by OK we mean the way things were when their loved one was alive. If you have to say something, my suggestion is, “May God comfort you.” Maybe the best thing to say is nothing. Just be there and sit and listen to stories about the dearly departed. Mother Teresa was right when she said, “God did not put us here to do great things. God put us here to do little things with great love.” Just silently sitting near your grieving friend is a little thing, but it is a little thing done with great love. Right now there is probably someone you know who is in mourning whom you have not yet contacted or only called once. Call him today. Call her today. It is also a little thing, but it can be done with great love.

I have heard that when an elephant dies the whole herd comes to the body and touches it with their trunks. They then touch one another before moving on. I think they do this because they cannot write, but they can draw upside down, and so can we. We can also touch one another before moving on.

Right now Dad is probably drawing something upside down for the angels.

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