A Father’s Day Tribute from a Genetic Disorder Warrior

Special To The Record – Leaha Mattinson

As Father’s Day approaches, many of us take time to contemplate just how powerful the paternal influence can be. For good or for ill, the lessons fathers teach impact their children for the rest of their lives. Speaker, life coach, and author Leaha Mattinson says her father was not only a great dad, but his unmatchable fortitude has taught her how to overcome incredible odds and survive her own devastating illness.

Six years ago, Mattinson was diagnosed with the gene for Huntington’s disease, a hereditary illness that presents like a combination of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia combined. John Mattinson, her father, who also has HD, has been diagnosed for 25 years but has had symptoms for many years prior.

“Even in the face of an illness like Huntington’s disease, he has been a rock for my entire family,” says Mattinson, the author of the upcoming book Silver Linings: The Leaha Mattinson Story (Balboa Press, Summer 2016, ISBN: 978-1-5043-5198-4). “While most people with HD die within 10-15 years of a diagnosis, my father is a champion. I am convinced that his mindset and determination are why he is still knocking it out of the park today. I credit following his example to my ongoing good health despite living with the same diagnosis.”

John Leslie Mattinson is 78 years old. After receiving his HD diagnosis at 53 years old, he continued on with his life as if nothing had changed—running the family farm until age 74 when he and his wife relocated to a nearby city. Through it all, he has never been depressed or discouraged, and though he is now “retired,” he still looks for adventure and ways to contribute right where he is. According to Mattinson, her father’s persevering spirit and can-do attitude are the factors that have kept him going strong.

“My dad gives people with Huntington’s disease a different way to experience it, to look at it, to understand it,” she affirms. “People need to realize that they can still live graciously with their illnesses and imperfections and that they don’t have to succumb to depression, apathy, or resentment. They can still have a happy life.”

Mattinson says her father raised her to be flexible, adaptable, curious, and gracious about accepting things you cannot change. These attributes come in handy as she works hard to manifest a life free from HD symptoms. These tenets, along with exercise, healthy diet, and a giant dose of positivity, are instilled in every part of her life.

“If everyone could adopt the best qualities from their dads (and moms) and leave the rest behind, then we would perpetually be improving the world,” insists Mattinson.

In honor of Father’s Day, she wants to share what makes her dad her champion in hopes of inspiring other sons and daughters everywhere to thank their dads and become strong, character-driven adults (and parents) themselves. Read on for a list of qualities that Mattinson says is the stuff of great fathers—based on her own father’s example.

Great dads are not afraid to hug and kiss. Great fathers are not afraid to show affection to their family members. According to Mattinson, children (even adult children) still need to feel love from both parents, and that love should be expressed in a physical way.

“Dad still hugs us when we arrive,” says Mattinson. “He meets me and the kids at the door—usually with my wonderful mom—and we all get a big hug to let us know we’re loved. We get shaken a bit from the hug, due to Dad’s HD chorea (involuntary movement), but it’s great that he shows us he loves us.”

They live their lives with honesty and integrity. In order to be able to count on their parents, there must be a solid foundation of trust, Mattinson insists. Many children today live with frequent disappointment due to their parents’ inconsistent words and behaviors. Honesty is an integral component to creating a secure environment for children to grow up in.

“He is truthful—and he has been throughout his entire life,” says Mattinson. “I could always take my dad’s words and behavior to the proverbial bank.”

They are self-starters. “Apathy and a lack of insight are often the first symptoms of HD, but my father motivates himself to get daily exercise, contributes to household chores, and manages the yard work,” says Mattinson. “He’s tenacious and has always inspired me to keep going when times get tough.”

They respect and revere the natural world. “He and Mom taught me to have reverence for living things, like baby ducks and bunnies,” says Mattinson. “There was even a fawn Dad once found in the field and brought to us to look at, to touch, to marvel at its amazingness. He is a gentle man.”

Great dads don’t hide from life. Hard times are going to happen, but a good father keeps going when things get tough. Mattinson explains that her father’s illness hasn’t stopped him from going out into the community and carrying on with his life in spite of the HD chorea, which causes him to shake uncontrollably. Despite all this, he has a twinkle in his eye and carries on being an active member of the community.

“He has accepted his physical body, shakes and all, and is still engaging and funny with other people when he meets them,” she says. “He plays crib every week and has a ton of friends. They can’t hear each other as well as they once used to, but that sure doesn’t stop them from getting together both for visiting and support through illnesses and life’s other challenges after 75.”

They admit their wrongs. “Apologizing when you are wrong is so, so important,” says Mattinson. “My dad does. Children need to learn that adults are human and that they make mistakes. Saying you’re sorry in front of your children and to your children teaches them how to behave. It shows that being wrong is not the worst thing in the world and that humility is a valuable trait to possess.”

They are great husbands or partners. Good fathers support not only their children, but their wives or partners as well. A partnership based on mutual respect, trust, and love is a formula for happiness—and helps ensure that those values carry over to the next generation. Fathers should remember that their children are always watching and imitating. So a father who is loving to his wife or partner teaches children to treat others with respect and love.

“My dad always treats my mom with love and affection,” says Mattinson. “He loves my mom to the moon and back and has for 50 years. When he talks about her, he gets teary because he just thinks she is the most amazing woman in the world.”

They show up for their loved ones. Just being there is the most important thing a father can do. Kids don’t want or need a perfect dad—they just need a dad who is there to guide and support them.

“Dad loves all his grandkids and cares deeply about everyone’s happiness,” she says. “He always shows up for their hockey games and dance recitals or teaches them about woodworking and how to care for plants and animals. They will always know that their grandfather loves them.”

As Father’s Day approaches, Mattinson hopes that all dads and those who have dads (everyone, really) will contemplate the unconditional love that all fathers feel for their children. Fatherhood is a precious gift, and having a great father is a real blessing.

“Perhaps the greatest lesson my dad has taught me is this: Enjoy life to the fullest,” she says. “Enjoy this moment. Enjoy the simple things like growing plants and experimenting with new recipes. Hang out and have coffee with your friends; just turn up the hearing aids. Help each other out when you can.

“If it snows, Dad is still over helping to shovel at his friends’ and neighbors’ homes,” adds Mattinson. “He sees what needs others have and figures out how to be of help to them. He is considerate, thoughtful, and has a huge heart, along with huge hands! As Tim McGraw’s hit song describes, he is ‘humble and kind.’ I cannot think of a better example for how to live my life.”