What I Got the Chance to Say to My Dad
I wrote this in 2003. It was published in our local paper on the Op-Ed page, so my dad got to read it, and I’m glad he did. This is my first Father’s Day without him, and even though I got to have him for 49 years, I didn’t realize how hard it would be.
My dad never said he loved me. I didn’t even consciously think about it until I was in my 20s. One day, when I was at work, my co-worker Ken took a call from his 6-year-old daughter. He talked with her for a few minutes and ended the conversation by saying “I love you, honey.”
I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion and burst into tears. For the first time, I felt all the pent-up sadness I had because I had never heard, and probably never would hear, my dad say those words to me.
I though a lot about that. Sometimes I would be sad and sometimes mad, and always full of self-pity. I felt I had missed out on so much by not having my dad say he loved me. It seems like one of those basic things kids need to know from their parents, and my dad had never said it to me even once. I brooded over the injustice of that and wondered what I could do to change my father.
A few years passed, and I ran into my former co-worker Ken again. I almost didn’t recognize him. Though we were close in age, he looked a lot older. He was haggard and his face was grey.
I asked him what he had been up to and he sighed deeply and told me. It sounded like he had an early midlife crisis of epic proportions. He left his wife, dropped out of his church, had a bunch of wild relationships, moved out of state and developed a drug and gambling problem. He had lost everything he owned and was on shaky terms with his family.
I felt sorry for Ken, but I felt worse for his kids. This man I had idealized because of what he said to his daughter on the phone helped me to realize that there are more important things than words.
My dad grew up in a place and time where men were not chatty. He reminds me a bit of Gary Cooper. He is a brilliant storyteller and loves a good joke, but he does not speak the language of emotions. I would be less surprised to hear him speaking Japanese than I would to hear him begin a sentence “I feel…”
My father never seemed to be overly happy or sad or giddy or tired or in pain. He was just a steady force that kept going through life, plowing ahead despite all obstacles.
There were things I couldn’t count on my dad for. I couldn’t count on him to say he loved me. I also couldn’t count on him for extravagant praise. When I ran to him with my latest accomplishment, his highest compliment would be to mutter, “That’s pretty good.” I couldn’t count on long heartfelt talks like fathers and daughters had on TV. But what I could count on him for was everything else.
When things needed to get done, he took care of them and made it look pretty easy. He went to work every day and came right home every evening. His life wasn’t flashy or adventurous or wild. It was centered around Mom, the five of us kids, the house and the relatives.
I am sure that there were times when he would have rather been anywhere but in a little house with six other people and one bathroom, but he never made it seem like that.
My dad took on his responsibilities without complaining, without wavering, seemingly without resentment. He made sure we had a roof over our heads, clean clothes, food to eat and never gave a hint of what a monumental task it was to provide all that for us.
He never seemed to get sick or tired, never lashed out in anger or frustration. When I was a child, that all seemed absolutely normal, but now that I am an adult and am often sick, tired frustrated or grumpy myself, I am amazed at his strength.
My dad is a man of actions, not words. He let me know how he felt about me each and every day, and if I couldn’t hear him say “I love you,” maybe it is because I was only listening with my ears and not my heart.
Happy Father’s Day to my dad, Bernard Davis, and to all the dads like him, men who care enough for their families to make the small, right choices every day that add up to a life filled with love.