Sunday, June 19, 2011

Honoring My Humble Father

Let me begin by wishing all the dads out there a very Happy Father's Day. It's another beautiful day in Montreal and I want to head out there and enjoy it, but first let me introduce you to the most important man in my life, my father, Dr. Thomas Kolivakis. That's him with his two grandchildren, Thomas and George. Another Thomas, their cousin, is in Crete with my sister and brother-in-law.

My father was born on December 22, 1931. As a child he lived through the second World War, an experience that had a profound effect on him. First, like many of his generation, he is deeply religious and has repeatedly told me that his most important relationship is the one with God. It has helped him persevere and deal with his personal challenges and it has given his life extraordinary meaning.

My father doesn't believe in what Marx described as using religion as the "opium for the masses." Instead, he prays, reflects and strives to be a better person by understanding the deeper meaning of the gospel. I often catch him reading the bible, and even though I'm not religious, I'll ask him what he's reading because I'm curious. He will explain it to me and relay it back to every day life.

The second thing that I noticed about my dad being brought up during the war is that he values education and hard work and doesn't believe in materialism and waste. If he sees me throwing away a piece of bread, he'll chastise me and tell me to freeze it instead. Drives me bananas sometimes but he's right, people are starving out there and we tend to take a lot of things for granted.

When it comes to his work, my father is incredibly devoted. He's almost 80 and has worked for over 40 years as a psychiatrist and still follows hundreds of patients very closely. My brother followed in his footsteps and I know part of me wanted to, but I got sidetracked and developed an addiction to macroeconomics and financial markets which I still have. Ironically, with his limited knowledge of financial markets, my father is much wiser than I am, stating flatly that the "stock market is all gambling," all part of what he calls "aero-capitalism" where individuals make a lot of money "selling nothing but hot air."

One of the things my dad keeps repeating to me is John Updike's famous quote: "sex is like money, only too much is enough." He's seen a lot in his career and knows that money doesn't buy you happiness. He knows all about what Pete Peterson, another product of Greek immigrants, calls the meaning of enough. Having been diagnosed with MS at the age of 26, and recently turned 40, I know money isn't going to bring me happiness, but it can buy you leisure and peace of mind (it can also make you miserable).

Both my parents taught their three kids proper values in life. They believe in education, hard work, and treating people with compassion and respect. My father sent us to French private schools and always told us that as long as we lived in Quebec, we should value the French language and culture.

But going to French private school also exposed me to money and other value systems. I remember back in high school, my well-to-do friends' parents were buying them cars, so I sat down with my father and asked him to buy me a car too. He listened to me patiently as I ranted on about how it's important to fit in, and asked my brother to join the conversation. I'll never forget what he told us: "I will never buy you a car. As long as you're doing well in school and complete a Master's at a minimum, I will pay for your food, clothes, vacations, give you some allowance, love you and support you. That's it. I learned how to drive at 29 at Soldier Field in Chicago when I was a resident and bought my own car. You will buy your own car when you can afford it."

I also remember when I first got to CEGEP (two year college mandatory in Quebec before university), I was enjoying my new found freedom. I had a hard time going from a strict French private school to college, so I abused my freedom and partied a lot. My grades suffered and my parents were not pleased. They decided not to send me to Greece that summer and I was fuming. I told them I would find work and leave on my own. My father told me to "do it."

So I did it, found any job I could. I worked in a smoked meat factory in the east end. Never ate smoked meat ever again. I worked at a Jewish cemetery digging graves with a shovel and wheelbarrow. That was the hardest job I ever did. Didn't last long there too. Finally, I found a job cleaning tennis courts near my house which paid me well. It was fun, got to tan, and made enough money to head off to Greece and party with my buddies on the islands. Best years of our lives! But the lesson my parents taught me was that I was fortunate enough to go to school and should take it a lot more seriously. I never took the value of an education for granted ever again.

Last summer, my sister told me that when she had her boy, she realized just how much we owe everything to our parents. We do owe everything to our parents and I don't tell them often enough how much I love and cherish them.

The Quebec Association of Psychiatrists recently awarded a lifetime achievement award to my father for clinical work. He's an extremely humble man and wasn't comfortable making a speech. I was in Toronto that day helping a Montreal commodities manager seed his fund, but my brother, sister-in-law, and two of his three grandchildren were in attendance.

Words cannot express how proud I am of my father and how much I love him. He has put up with my insufferable character which has gotten worse ever since and I was diagnosed with MS, especially in recent years. I have been through a lot, and he has stuck by my side every step of the way. He's still there for me, patiently listening to all my problems, consoling me when things aren't going my way with uncanny compassion, and praising me when he's proud of me. I'm learning to listen more to him, going to the gym, and will take the necessary steps to be a better person, a lot more like him.

That's why today I want to honor the most important man in my life, my father. Thank you for being the greatest father and grandfather in the world. If at the age of 80, I can look back at my life and be half the man you are, I will be proud of myself. I leave my readers with the one video I absolutely love watching on this special day. Enjoy.