For D on his 60th birthday (5/14/2010).
I was cleaning out my closet yesterday when I found two gifts from my dad: a magenta knit scarf and an oversized t-shirt with steel drums on the front and “Soca to the max!” printed on the back. I smiled as I folded them and put them back in the drawer. The scarf was made by an 80-year-old woman and purchased at a local fundraiser. “It reminded me of those cool flowers by your apartment in West Hollywood. I thought you’d like the color.” I did. He bought the t-shirt on his first trip to New York at age 56 (during which he called me at least once a day to express his excitement — “I’m walking down 5th Avenue, this is awesome!”). “I bought it big, so you can sleep in it if you want. I thought you’d like it, it’s kind of Caribbean.” I did.
Neither of these were things I would have ever picked out for myself, but I liked them… a lot. As for the intangible gifts he has offered me throughout the years, I wonder if the parental moments I consider his most effective and inspired are the ones he’d choose.
We used to take walks around our suburban neighborhood after dinner when I was in junior high. He would tell me stories about his childhood, about insecurities and worries that he had when he was younger and some that he still held. He would tell me about choices he had made, some he was happy about and others he wished he could change. Listening to him I always felt better, lighter, more normal somehow. Instead of “bestowing fatherly advice” on me, we talked and joked, like two people who enjoyed hanging out together. I now realize that learning about his life helped me to navigate my own. I always used to think I was very different from him, that I was more “my mom’s” and Annie was more “his.” However, over the years, I have heard his voice come out of my mouth more times than I can count and surprised myself as I made choices that replicated his own.
Looking back, I realize how honest his parenting style was. Challenging as we were at times, he always engaged with my sister and me in a natural, completely uncontrived manner. He parented us from the heart. In our youthful arrogance, we hurt him several times by taking jokes too far or making choices that disappointed him. Instead of scolding us or laying on the guilt, he told us that he was hurt or confused by what we had done. We talked about it; we dealt with it. To this day, I am more receptive and empathetic because of these experiences.
When I had my first major heartbreak I called him from my college dorm room, sobbing. He listened for hours as I went on and on about betrayal, true love and lies. At the end of my monologue there was silence. “Well, this is one of those parenting moments when I don’t have the answers, when I don’t know what to say. I know it will get better for you, but that probably doesn’t mean much to you right now,” he said. “I just need you to know how much I love you.” I was frustrated when I hung up the phone. I had called for answers, insight, something. To my 19-year-old self, his words seemed like a cop- out.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized just what it took for him to be honest with me in that moment. He had taken my emotions so seriously that, instead of offering a “one size fits all” pep talk, he courageously admitted that he didn’t have the answer. His admission of “not knowing” was a validation of my pain, of what I was going through, and essentially of me. He didn’t belittle or dismiss me as an over-emotional college freshman (which I was); he treated me with love and respect.
Last Thanksgiving, I saw him wander into my home office. I stood in the doorway as he looked at my framed diplomas, wedding photos and the mounds of papers and projects on my desk. His eyes stopped on a framed photo of us when I was a newborn— he’s holding me close to his bushy 70s beard, smiling, and I’m staring at him with a look of serenity.
“You were my age there,” I said.
“Younger, I was 28,” he laughed, “I was so happy to be your dad. I still am.”
I hugged him. “So proud of you,” he said.