How my father's death completely changed my perspective on the American dream

He did everything right – but then he was gone, just weeks after buying a condo in Florida, and suddenly nothing made sense any more

Rose Burke
Friday 09 February 2018 12:06 GMT
When my father died, everything I’d been taught to strive towards no longer made sense to me. A degree. A job. A career. A pension. Stability
When my father died, everything I’d been taught to strive towards no longer made sense to me. A degree. A job. A career. A pension. Stability (Getty)

My father was the stereotypical all-American man. He drank Budweiser from a can, ate far too much spaghetti, and had a handlebar moustache that intimidated even the toughest boys I brought home. He glued himself to the couch during baseball season and football season, sure to never miss a Super Bowl. He rooted for the Mets and the Jets, no matter how badly they were doing that year. He clocked over 50 hours a week at a job he didn’t like much, up before the sun but always home in time for dinner. He worked six days a week, all but Sundays which was when he’d whip us up some French toast. He was my father, and his name was Kenny Burke.

Raised in a typical Irish-Catholic family, my dad was the youngest of 11 children comprising eight girls, three boys, and one bathroom. My grandparents probably would have kept going too if my grandfather hadn’t died of colon cancer in 1956 when my dad was just 18 months old. We Irish folks never know when enough is enough. Then again, neither do Americans.

14 July 2014. The day that changed my life.

When my father died, everything I’d been taught to strive towards no longer made sense to me. A degree. A job. A career. A pension. Stability. That was a word used far too often during conversations throughout my childhood. Conversations that drilled the American work ethic into my head. Ones that made me think I had to get good grades in school. I had to go to college. I had to get a job that offered health insurance and paid time off and a retirement plan. This was the definition of success. The only definition.

Before my father’s death, I was working in an office cubicle staring at a computer for 45 hours a week. I was motivated and driven in my path towards what I felt was an appropriate career choice for me. One that was close enough to my true passion of writing, but that came with the stability that writing what I was passionate about wouldn’t have offered.

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I wasn’t exactly thrilled about having to wake up with the sun, nor with the fact that I sat at a desk where I spent more time pretending to be busy than actually being busy. The work I was given was far from challenging, and I’m embarrassed to admit the amount of caffeine I required just to get through the day. Or the number of naps I took while hiding in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet. All so I could go home, go to sleep, and do it all over again the next morning. But this is what I was taught success looked like, and I wanted to do things the right way.

My father did things the right way. He worked all the hours. He took that one big vacation per year. He had the stability I was always told to strive for. The stability that was supposed to pay off in the end. Unfortunately, my father never made it to the end. He put in all the hours and work but he died just weeks after my parents purchased their condo in Florida. Just a few years short of retirement. Short of the end he was working towards.

After he died, I continued to do the right thing, mostly because I was in a trance from the shock of what happened and felt comforted by going through the motions of my daily routine. It wasn’t long though before all of those things I’d been taught to strive for, the salary, the pension, the health insurance, started to seem meaningless. They weren’t worth to me the amount of time I was wasting in that office, working towards the advancement of someone else’s achievements. Someone else’s company.

I began to wonder how long it would take them to replace me if I dropped dead. A week? Two maybe? It hardly took that long for my father to be replaced. Maybe I’d gone a little crazy, but the more time I wasted at that desk the more I began to crave instability and I knew something had to change.

Today my life is very different. Over these few years since my father passed I’ve been able to shed my desire for stability and alter my definition of success. I’m no longer just an employee number punching a clock or even much of a coffee drinker these days. I put in the time to work towards my own achievements, rather than those of others.

While my father was always a firm believer in the American work ethic, I believe he would be proud of me for straying from the norm and finding my own definition of success. My life has become far more of an adventure than I could have ever imagined. I travel often and sleep in when I can. I write about the things I want to write about. If I’m tired in the middle of the day, I take a nap. My naps are in an actual bed rather than on a toilet. It’s so far from the life I thought I’d have at this time of my life, and for that, I am so grateful.

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