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Buying Presents vs Being Present

The time of the year is upon us where we drive ourselves into exhaustion purchasing presents for Christmas and buying gifts for friends, family and co-workers. For many, the holiday season is a time of togetherness and sharing good times with loved ones. Yet, too often, this season also induces anxiety and stress as we pile on debt and headaches trying to ensure that people close to our hearts are presented with offerings of kindness. So I’m taking this occasion to discuss “Black Friday” and the ways we are conditioned to keep buying more as we lead lives of utter materialism; in the process, I endeavor to give you a present of another kind and share with you a part of my story.

There are many heroes from the past who I look up to; men and women who gave their all to others and sacrificed in order to advance the cause of justice. Yet no hero written about or omitted by history books quite compares to my father—my dad is my hero of all heroes. From the time I was a child in Ethiopia to coming of age in America, my father was a constant force in my life who worked relentlessly in order to provide for his family. We arrived in the United States as refugees with few possessions to our names and even less money. My parents did not want to set off any alarms that we were fleeing Ethiopia, so they left everything behind in order to escape the brutally repressive Derg government. From a life of upper-middle class comforts in Bole, we landed in America with change in our pockets and only hope in our hearts.

What my parents lacked in money, they had perseverance and work ethics in spades. My father immediately took on multiple jobs in order to ensure a roof over our heads as my mother likewise carried the task of taking care of four kids and providing on the home front. Our very first home was an efficiency in Arlington, Virginia—six people crammed into a space not much bigger than a college dorm room. My father was determined to make sure that his children had what he lacked growing up; he made it his sole purpose to ensure that my three siblings and I all attend college and realize the American dream. To this end, my father worked at parking lots, 7-11, drove a taxi, worked at the US post office and took on a litany of jobs as he worked three or four jobs at a time.

This is me at the age of six years old in Ethiopia greeting my father at Bole Airport.

His dedication paid off as we slowly ascended the societal ladder; with each year, our lives and financial conditions slowly improved. We went from an efficiency in Arlington to renting out a basement in Alexandria to leasing a town house. Finally, my parents decided to buy a house in Prince William County where I spent my teenage years growing up in Woodbridge, Virginia. But our climb up from the bottom to the middle-class came with a heavy cost—my father was forced to work up to 80 hours a week. As much as I lionize my father’s tenacity in giving all he had to us, I always felt a tinge of sadness that he was not around more. The more we attained in life, the more he had to work; consuming the American dream comes with the indigestion of bills and the stress of keeping up with the rent.

As much as my father has impacted my life, I wished he was around more often instead of working so many jobs. I’m not saying this to complain about my father or to in any way present him as being derelict of his responsibilities to his family. Given a choice between a father playing catch with his son or a mother attending her daughter’s recital versus putting food on the table and giving roof over their children’s heads, parents have to prioritize shelter and providing or else be met by indigence and the hardship that comes with poverty. Yet, given this understanding, I’m still occasionally gnawed by remorse that I did not get to spend more time with my father. To this day, the memory that resonates with me the most about my time in Ethiopia was hearing the news that my father was slated to return from his overseas travels only to run to the gates to anxiously await my dad’s return.

The last time I had a conversation with my father was when he was on his deathbed as he was succumbing to cancer. Always a stern man who said little and let actions do his talking, on December 22nd, 2001, my father Fikremariam opened up to me emotionally in ways he never did in the past. Something moved him to impart one last advice and apologize to me at the the conclusion of his profession. “I’m sorry,” my father said. “I wish I was around more often with you when you were growing up.” With those words, tears started to flow from his eyes. I was taken aback, rarely have I seen my father cry. I immediately embraced him and said “you providing for us was your presence, if I’m half the father you were to my children, they will be blessed”. In a tangle of IVs and breathing tubes, a father and son embraced for the last time.

Later on that day, my father went into cardiac arrest and was subsequently put on life support. His official day of passing was January 5th, 2002, but for me, my father rested on December 22nd—the day we shared a tearful hug. There is nothing more painful I’ve experienced in my life than seeing my father being ravaged by cancer; there is still a void in my heart caused by my dad’s early departure. I miss our conversations and epic political arguments. I learned how to debate because my father was a genius who would always get the best of me when we matched wits while I tagged along in his taxi. He taught me the value of seeking knowledge instead of accepting the ideologies of others. He taught me above all to think for myself and to be independent—it was his guidance that saw me through my two year dance with austerity.

On this day, as I witness one person after another coming to the restaurant where I work and seeing people shop all day to honor a made up corporate holiday, it made me think back to what my father said as he was nearing life’s end. Parenthetically, did you know that corporations call it “Black Friday” to celebrate being profitable for the year? They are encouraging us to get shackled by debt in order to feed the profits of multinational corporations and to put yet more dineros in the bank accounts of billionaires. Observing the rigors people go through to buy presents made me wonder what life would be like if we had less growing up but more of each other as a family. What if we grew up in the efficiency instead of buying a town home? What if we only had one car instead of two? What if we lived a life of the working class instead of my father breaking his back to make sure we attained middle-class amenities?

Like I said, I don’t write this to in anyway diminish the work and sacrifice of my father and the efforts he extended ensuring that his children were given the tools to succeed in life. All three of my siblings and I ended up going to college as my parents desired and all of us were able to realize our dreams and potentials. But would our accomplishments have been made impossible if we live in a lesser home or we live in a lesser part of town? Perhaps this is what my father was apologizing to me about; to provide and give presents is great but nothing beats the gift of being present. We can’t live a life of regret; we earn wisdom after all through suffering pains that falls drop by drop upon our hearts as Aeschylus once said. While we can’t change the past, we can do something about our circumstances going forward. As the holidays dawn upon us, I want you to reflect on these things. There is no present in life that exceeds the gift of being present for the people you love. Toys come and toys go; kids open up gifts and get excited for a minute only to forget about those trinkets in a hair’s breath. Likewise for us adults, what is flashy one minute is dull after the excitement passes. Better to live a humble life than to break yourself trying to attain status and fortunes; better to live a rich life than drive yourself into poverty by trying to be rich. Instead of lining up outside of stores and buying gadgets that add no value to life, live in the moment. Be grateful for what you have instead of ruminating about what you don’t have. Don’t wait til the end to realize that the biggest gift you can give to others is the present of your presence. #BePresent

“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Below is a poem I wrote while I was in the midst of my two year travel that eventually became a compilation of poems that make up my first book “Serendipity’s Trace”. 

Dreams of Fathers and Presence

It still swirls and churns in my mind
The moment my father withdrew into silence
The minute his eyes submerged into darkness
The last conversation we had
The last tears exchanged between us
His last day on earth
The last conversation we shared
He conveyed a message
The burden he carried to heaven

As he struggled to speak
Words being muffled by discomfort
His eyes brimming with broken water
He apologized to me in sorrow
Unable to hug me
He instead embraced me with a regret

I did not fully understand it back then
Why he wept as he uttered these words
“I’m sorry, I wish I was around more”
All I could do was offer a retort
That was based in absolute sincerity
I told him what I felt in my heart
He provided the best he was able
Even if work got in the way of his presence

I don’t write these words with resentment
Rather perhaps it’s based on my own regret
For now I understand my father’s last lesson
What he learned as he was in transition
His remorse was not that he did not provide
It’s that he provided too much
Working too hard to advance
To make sure his children had enough
And never suffered for wanting
Became in itself a curse of excesses

Too much work taking away
From the time he has with us
We chase dreams trying to advance
Insisting on buying homes and having enough
But for is it worth to attain success
If it takes away from living in the presence
It was cancer that took my father away
But an equal accomplice in his early death
Were in equal parts stress, work, and no rest

Would his children have been any less
If we grew up in an apartment
Instead of a suburban townhouse
Would we have been reduced
If we had one car instead of two
Or lived in a less suitable neighborhood

What my father regretted was time
Time he sacrificed as he sacrificed for us
Time he spent in a taxi and post office
Endless toil and quantity of work
Taking away from quality time at home
Only to have his children grow up in a flash
And sickness forcing him finally to take respite
Endless time with family spent on bed rest

To all of you reading this
I beseech you to stop chasing dreams
And instead live the dream of the moment
The biggest present you can give to your children
Is the present of presence and being with them
for material gain and acquiring accumulation is negligent

As the season of giving arrives
Forget buying gifts and instead let love be the present
Driving yourselves into debt and bondage
For the sake of gifts that are worthless
Will in time lead to your own regret

But time spent with loved ones
Time invested not in money but emotion
These gifts keep on giving
So instead of stressing about providing more
Provide by just being there
Peace and remain blessed

“Serendipity’s Trace” is available on Amazon, you can click HERE or click on the picture below to find out more about my journey and how I arrived at my first book. 

If you are in the DC Metro area, I will be hosting my first book exhibit and a community discussion along with it about race and identity in America on Saturday, December 16th, at Sidamo Coffee and Tea in Washington DC. Click HERE or on the picture below to find out more about the event and RSVP as well. 

Lastly, check out the Ghion Cast below where I discuss a bit more about my journey and how I arrived from hardship to purpose and the “exodus” that changed my life for the better through hardship. 

Teodrose Fikremariam
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Teodrose Fikremariam

Writer at Ghion Journal
Teodrose Fikremariam is the co-founder and former editor of the Ghion Journal.
Teodrose Fikremariam
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