I published this last year, but it still rings true. Thinking of my dad this weekend and missing him.
My dad was not a demonstrative guy. I was well into my late teens before I recall him saying to me the words, “I love you.” I remember phone calls home, and farewells as I headed back to college, when I would say, “I love you, dad,” and he would respond, in kind. At first, a little hesitant, but eventually with ease.
About a week before he died and after he had slipped into the beginnings of a coma, my last words to him were, “I love you, dad.”
It was the only time in 30-plus years that he couldn’t respond.
But as I left him for the last time, knowing I would never see him alive again, I walked away in the full and complete confidence of his undying and unconditional love for me.
Dad had a wonderful sense of humor. He was the most enthusiastic practical joker I’ve ever known and some of my fondest childhood moments are when he enlisted my siblings and me in his ridiculous plots against friends and neighbors (many of them involved a police siren and an old toilet).
He loved to joke and poke fun. Sometimes his teasing stung – as my aggressive joshing with my children probably stings a bit, too – but my mom was always quick to come behind him and say something like, “You know, all that kidding is your dad’s way of telling you he loves you.”
And so I embraced that sentiment, drew it deeply to into my heart and treasured every one of those I-love-you moments that were disguised as teasing.
As I grew older, I thought the best way to certify my dad’s love was to hear words directly from his mouth. That’s why it was so important for me to pry them from him at the end of every phone conversation and every visit home.
Now, as I look back, I realize that there were hundreds of more important ways that my father demonstrated his love for me. I list here just a few.
Along with my mother, he gave me my faith and modeled it for me in a million ways.
He taught me how to be a friend to others.
He showed me the importance of cultivating a healthy sense of humor.
He loved and respected my mother. (They were married for 51 years.)
He gave up a well-paying job in Dallas primarily because he feared that the demands of the job would detract from his responsibilities as a parent and that the “big city” would be a corrupting influence on us.
When he wasn’t at work, he was at home, with his family.
As a young adult, whenever I screwed up, especially after I disregarded his advice, I never heard him say, “I told you so.” His patience and love for me when I made mistakes was a thing of wonder.
The most significant amount of time that I spent with my dad before his declining health was one summer about ten years ago. I went to Fredericksburg, Virginia – where he and my mom lived until his death in August 2008 – to join him in making a piece of furniture.
Dad was a very good woodworker and we spent the week in my brother’s garage designing and making a wooden, revolving bookstand, patterned after the elegant piece that Thomas Jefferson designed and which remains on display at Monticello. For five or six days, I was his dutiful student as he patiently gave me lessons in furniture making.
The bookstand, while not perfect, is quite utilitarian. It sits beside me on my desk as I write this and was a valued tool as I wrote my last three books.
More important, however, are the memories of my dad that this bookstand conjures.
When I look at it now, I am taken back to that oppressively hot garage where, standing in piles of sawdust, dad and I labored together — often in silence, punctuated only by the screech of a table saw — on a simple piece of furniture. I believe that my being with him, showing him that I was still an eager student and that he still had much to teach me, made him happy. He was so proud of the bookstand that we designed and produced together.
But unspoken between us that week was the mutual love — for it was then that I fully realized that there are so many ways to show love to the important people in your life. And they don’t always involve flowers and greeting cards and coerced words of affection.
More often than not, a father’s love comes packaged in teasing, or in simple demonstrations of faith or honesty. Sometimes, as I learned, it comes in the form of sawdust.
As this Father’s Day approaches – the fourth since his death – I’m overcome with the strong sense of this wonderful man’s love for me and the hope that I can be half the father to my children that he was to me.