Great Dads Shine in the Dark Times (A Father’s Day Tribute)

By Leaha Mattinson

It’s easy to be a great Dad in great times. At least it should be. What man wouldn’t delight in carrying a laughing toddler on his shoulders, chasing fireflies at twilight, throwing a football, splashing in the pool, manning the grill at the family cookout?

But this, to me, is a better question: are you a great Dad when the (proverbial) sun goes behind the clouds and the icy rain begins to pelt the roof? How do you parent when you’re injured in a five-car pile-up? When you lose your job? When you get the cancer diagnosis? When you come out on the losing end of a bitter divorce?

What kind of Dad are you then?

It’s a tough question but a fair one. After all, life is tough. (If you don’t know it yet, you soon will.) And when the hammer comes down or the test results come back positive or the money runs out, your kids are still there expecting you to parent them.

Yes, your children are watching in good times and bad. I believe it’s the latter—those dark nights of the soul that descend on us all—that illuminate the character of a father. And it’s during these times that you teach your kids the most. If you’re a Dad, I hope you’ll think about that this Father’s Day.

I’ve learned plenty from my Dad about how to live well when times get tough. And I’m really, really happy I have right about now.

Six years ago, I was diagnosed with the gene for Huntington’s disease. If you don’t know, this is a hereditary illness that presents like an unholy mix of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia. It’s bad—and while my health is fine right now (and I’m doing all I can to keep it this way) I know this grace period will come to an end.

Living with this knowledge is not easy. And once my symptoms kick in, it won’t be easy, either. I am blessed to say, though, that despite it all I am living a full, rich, joyful life—and I give all the credit to the example set by my wonderful father.

My Dad, John Mattinson, also has Huntington’s disease. He was diagnosed 25 years ago, though his symptoms started years before that. Right now, Dad is 78. Statistically, it’s remarkable that he is still alive, but what’s even more remarkable is how he has lived (and continues to live) his life.

After receiving his HD diagnosis at age 53, he continued on with his life as if nothing had changed—running our family farm until just a few years ago when he and Mom relocated to a nearby city.

Dad does all he can to stay healthy. He eats nourishing foods. He gets daily exercise. He listens to his body and strives to give it what it needs. These are his practical weapons in the Huntington’s battle. But I believe they are just a small part of what is keeping him alive—and I don’t mean “existing,” I mean alive. What’s doing it is his spirit.

My Dad doesn’t hide from life. Quite the opposite. Despite the HD chorea that causes him to shake uncontrollably, he remains an active member of his community. He has accepted the limitations of his body but will never accept limitations on his spirit.

He plays crib every week. He has a ton of friends. He’s curious. He’s engaging. He’s funny. He sees the needs people have and figures out how he can be of help to them. When it snows, Dad is still over helping friends and neighbors shovel the driveway. Yes, still—at 78 with Huntington’s disease.

Oh, and how he loves! He has adored Mom for 50 years and still gets teary over her. He has always been a hugger and he still is, shakes and all. He adores his grandkids and cares deeply about their happiness. He always shows up for their hockey games and dance recitals. He teaches them about woodworking and how to care for plants and animals. They will always know that their grandfather loves them.

Finally, Dad knows how to enjoy the moment. All the moments. He revels in the simple things like growing plants, experimenting with new recipes, hanging out with friends and savoring a cup of coffee.

This last has probably been the greatest lesson Dad has taught me. When times are tough, life goes on. And despite the rocks strewn along the path, the journey is wonderful.

I like to say that watching my Dad is saving my life. It’s true. He has shaped my outlook in countless ways and given me the strength to keep going when the going is tough. What a gift. What a blessing. What a lesson for struggling fathers everywhere.

Thanks Dad…and Happy Father’s Day.

About the Author: 
Leaha Mattinson, author of the upcoming book Silver Linings, is using her professional training as a life coach and change management specialist to develop a mental and physical regimen to stop the onset of Huntington’s disease. She has helped thousands of individuals find solutions to their personal problems and works with CEOs and senior managers to build leaders, address issues of workplace conflict, and ensure positive change. Leaha is beating the odds through proven, simple “wellness strategies” that anyone can achieve. She shares her strategies in her book and on her website at

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