When I first really got to know my dad I was sixteen. My mom had died in August, my brother was starting University out East in September, and my sister was soon leaving for Australia. It was like someone introduced us as father daughter and then ran away giggling, leaving us there staring in wonderment at one another.
There we were, grief stricken: me with an infinite need for love and affection, and him having just lost the love of his life and now being called on to parent.
His first order of business was to draw up a contract stating when my curfew was, certain grades I was to attain, and how I was going to prepare for my future. He was doing the best he could.
But as a hormonal teenage girl, I saw it as a lack and I just wanted him to scoop me up and tell me everything would be okay. I had pictured that we would give each other everything that was missing emotionally from no longer having a wife, mother, other kids in the house. I dreamed he’d say he was proud of me, just like my mom used to, and he’d congratulate me for even going to school during such a hard time. I needed him to validate, understand and be proud.
It was an unfair expectation for both of us.
A few years later, after leaving my hometown for good, I found myself alone with him. This was a rare occurrence. We were driving up to my sister’s cottage and along the stretch of winding road I felt a question brewing. There was still a little girl inside of me looking for validation. It was the perfect opportunity to express myself as I was the one driving and there was no escape for him.
In my early twenties, I rejected the idea of University. I wanted to be a student of the world and the combination of my personality and the loss I’d experienced, had created somewhat of a free-spiritedness in me. I wanted to do anything and everything, and nothing by the book. I was the total opposite of what I perceived my dad would accept.
After a few years of chasing dreams and traveling, I was at a point where I hadn’t achieved nearly as much as I wanted to by that time. In fact, I felt like an utter failure. I was twenty-three.
It was incredibly hard for me to admit, especially to him, but it was imperative that I told him how I felt. I spent a few minutes preparing the monologue in my head and then nervously launched into it. “I thought I would be much further in a career by now. I just thought I’d be somewhere else in my life,” I’d said wistfully.
He’d nodded, looking straight ahead to the long stretch of highway. “I’m very ambitious you know. I want to do big things in life!” The tears welled up and the question that had been burning a hole in my head for years came tumbling out: “Do you think I’m a failure?” I asked.
And as a long pause ensued and I held my breath, his head cocked to the side and he exclaimed, “They sell corn on the side of the street?! I didn’t know that!”
I let out a sigh and playfully slapped his arm. “Dad, focus. Did you hear what I said?” He turned to me with a warm smile and said, “I never really thought about it.”
He’d never thought about it. It’s not that he wasn’t proud of me. He just hadn’t thought about it. Something that I had built up, like a bridge holding the weight of the world, was nothing. It was nothing, because it didn’t exist. He loved me and that was it.
I had once again added too much emotion to a recipe that was actually quite simple. Father loves daughter. Daughter should stop thinking about it so much.
After he’d said it, I laughed. I kept laughing after he asked me what in the world I was laughing at. “You didn’t even think about it,” I’d chuckled. He just nodded, like he’d said something really great, and then we moved on. That night he talked about my mom and how impressive she was. As I listened intently, hanging on every word about a woman he loved for so long, I realized something.
We assume because we feel something, it must be reality. But really, this is not the case. My dad’s ‘way’ of showing love and affection was simply not the way I had expected or envisioned in my head all those years. The guy was dealing with his own pain and I believe his wish was that life would carry on and I would just be okay.
Suddenly, after so many years of expecting and feeling rejected, this epiphany shifted my whole way of receiving his love. What he had actually given me during those years was incredibly valuable.
A cascade of new memories replaced the old ones with new sub texts and warm feelings attached.
Within these new memories, I saw him coming to visit me in Ireland, Toronto, New York, arriving in his casual clothes, looking for a hot dog joint and the two of us sitting down for a beer. I can see him twenty years ago sitting up in his brown terry cloth robe in the middle of the night. With his hand wedged in his crotch and a confused look on his face, I sobbed to him about the boy I slapped from school because he had called my friend a snob.
I can see him in a guitar store when I was ten years old, handing me the box that contained my very first acoustic. I can hear him fourteen years ago on the phone from thousands of miles away asking me if I was eating enough and not drinking too much. I can see him doing magic tricks for my gaggle of girls, not once or twice, but several times over the span of decades. I can see him trying to give me that hilariously elusive sex talk in a dark restaurant the night before I left for Europe. I see him a few days later on the phone with Irish customs officers pleading with them to let me through. I see all the times he asked me if I was okay for money. I see his car driving by my friend’s house where I had ‘run away’ to in High School, just slowly creeping by to make sure I was still there.
I now see him picking lemons from a lemon tree with my son. I hear him giggle into the phone when I tell him I’m going to California with twelve of my girls. I watch his proud look when he talks about how I went to University and got that degree. I feel his warm embrace when he comes to visit and a whisper in my ear, “I love ya.”
All these memories may not be ones laden with I’m proud of you’s and pats on the back and affectionate words, but they symbolize something that I wish I would have appreciated more a long time ago: Fatherly Love. It may not look the same as mama love, but it sure is made from the same ingredients.
Happy Father’s Day dad. You’re a wonderful person and I’m proud to call you dad, even though I called you Bob for so many years. Lol.