my dad

Today is my father's birthday, and this year I decided to do something a little different. Inspired by Things I Learned About my Dad (In Therapy), a collection of essays by Heather, the writer of, I decided to write an essay about my dad... written as if towards an outside party who wanted to know about our relationship... and give it to him for his birthday. I was completely honest in it, and I think that's why it turned out as good as it did.... it wasn't sugar coated BS, its the real honest truth about our relationship and why I love him. He was very surprised when I gave it to him this past weekend, and I hope it is something he can save to read on those down days when he needs to know that someone out there loves him very much.

I'm including it here, and I hope you enjoy it as well. It is long, I'll warn you in advance. But I think it is worth the read.

Happy Birthday Papita. I love you very much.

There were years when I wished my parents would get a divorce. The fighting was constant, and my father seemed like an angry stranger that I didn't know how to please. I would load the dishwasher wrong, walk wrong, be too slow with my homework or with eating dinner. I didn't know him anymore and I didn't want to.

It wasn't always like that; my formative years were happy and full of love. I don't remember my parents fighting then, or being unhappy, and while I'm sure some of that is simple childhood naïveté and missed subtext, it’s also because it was before something in my father broke.

It happened when I was in middle school, and while he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder (manic depression), that was only after what I now know to be much time spent in the most awful state of depression. There were days that he would sit at home and be so weighted down by his sadness and pain that he would have ended it all, would he just have energy enough to get up and do so. Thankfully he got help, and was able to work through those times and come out, if not the same recklessly happy person as before, at least one that could find his way through life again.

One particular memory, from the before: My mom and I were at the supermarket doing our weekly shopping when I saw a stuffed cat on sale. How desperately I wanted that cat! We didn't have the means to be buying stuffed animals at every excursion, nor did I really need any more, but boy did I want that cat. We went home without it, but a few days later my papita sent me to the fridge to bring him a drink and there was the cat, sitting on the middle shelf. I carried that cat around all over the place, including to the house of a family friend. They had a long beautiful backyard surrounded by trees and backed by a creek. The water was a few feet down, the earth held back from it by a concrete wall, which we would sit on and throw sticks to watch them sail away downstream. My new cat was "walking" along the end of that wall when I lost my grip and it dropped to the water. I must have shouted, because the next thing I know my dad was over the edge of the embankment and into the creek water below. All for a stupid, stuffed cat. I remember feeling embarrassed, but so proud... so happy that my dad would throw himself into the cold water for a stuffed animal, what greater things would he do if I was the one in trouble! I still have that cat.

During certain parts of my college career, we would meet once a week to get tea and a sandwich at a little shop by my campus. I loved those moments of having him all to myself, when it was less about him being the parental unit, and more about us just being two people who love each other and want to share what is happening in their lives. Too often before I came to college that was not the case, and my own battles with depression, ones that started in my teens and stretched until my mid-twenties, got in the way of seeing how much my father really did just want to know me. To know my life.

I remember my freshman year, newly in love with the man that would become my husband, I was a hard woman to reach. Pre-cell phone, I was constantly away from my dorm, off at class or spending every spare minute with my new beau. That included evenings. Meaning no reaching me before bed, or before class in the morning either. I always called back, but my father, reaching a point of frustration during one of those returned calls, demanded the truth from me. And in all my freshly-independent wisdom, I gave it to him. “You want the truth?! We're sleeping together!” The phone was quickly passed to my mother, who in her much greater and longer held wisdom told me that my father did not actually want the truth. In reality, he just wanted to know that I was okay, that I was being smart, and that he was still an important part of my life.

He was. He still is. He always will be.

Writing this has been so much harder then I thought because the past shared by my father and I is one littered with misgivings, miscommunications, and missed opportunities. Those things all led us to where we are today, but they paint a picture that isn't complete because our past is also full of shared moments, gentle compromises, and so so much love. I’m not going to lie and say that our relationship has always been easy, because for many years it was not, it was downright horrible. He was angry at things beyond his control, I was full of teenage shortsightedness, and we interacted with a blazing intensity of emotions that often left us both hurt and confused on what just happened. My father is not a man to let someone blow smoke up his ass and to make this real it has to include the bad so that the good can be believed.

And it should be, because my father is an amazing man. A torn man, often held hostage by personal demons and the inability to see the good in him that others see, but a genuinely good man. If it were up to me, he would measure his life not in the matters where he feels he falls short, but in the number of times he sang Cat Stevens songs for me to fall asleep to at night, and the number of mornings he read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to me while we waited at the bus stop.

He would know that he taught me the beauty of getting lost. I have such fond memories of our drives to my best friend’s house during pre-high school summers. We would set off in the mornings, me impatient to get there with daydreams of the video games to be played, the pool laps to be swum, the giggling, and the perfectly lazy day ahead floating through my head. The first time I imagine I might have been suspicions of the unexpected detour from our known routes (of which we already had many), but now I love those memories of trips through cornfields and along semi-paved roads, which did (amazingly) always end up at Heather’s door. We’d head off along an unexplored road, with me getting to pick the direction of our turns, and watch the beauty of our countryside laid out before our unhurried wheels. It was almost sad when the roads would become familiar again and I would know that we were close to our destination. I wonder if he longed to just keep driving, the way that I did on those mornings. I wonder if he intended to teach me that the journey is everything.

My father is also a man with a sense of humor… one that involved turning off all the lights and jumping out from behind couches when scary movies were on. One I didn’t always appreciate as a young girl on dark and stormy nights. I still can’t watch the original House on Haunted Hill without getting the willies.

While my papita has been many things in his life (carpenter, mental health advocate, mail man, free-wheeling hippie to name a few), I think the thing he has embraced the most is being a father. And he is damn good at it. His family is his life, and while my mom and I might have been closer, he has always been there.

As my husband and I work to start our own family, I appreciate my father now more then ever. I wonder if I will be able to put aside my shortcomings to be all the parent I can to our children. I wonder how I will ever teach them all there is to learn. I know that at least part of that will be easy thanks to his example. It will involve taking the long way to our destination, through uncharted areas, books read aloud, and songs sung at bedtime. It will be freedom of expression, encouragement for intellectual pursuits, and going out when you want to stay in, so that there is never a missed opportunity. It will also hopefully be less raised voices and angry words, but if we can’t learn from each other’s shortcomings, then what can we learn from?

My father taught me that too.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful way to honor your Dad. I hope he has a happy birthday!


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