A Letter to Dad from a Long Way Away

“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.” —Anne Sexton

Dear Dad, I know that where you are, letters are a pretty passé way of communicating. But from where I am, a letter is still a pretty good way of communicating. Even if it’s with myself. So indulge me by listening to what I need to hear. Certainly you taught me that listening to what your children need to hear is a big part of being a father.

It is almost Father’s Day, and while I have for some decades now been a father it is difficult for me to see myself as a father when I think of you. When I think of you I am forever a son. And you are forever a father. My father.

I shut your eyes Dad and you opened mine. When you passed away you certainly didn’t pass out of my life. Each day when I say my prayers I have a visualization of you and fear to stop because I know that you cherish the company as much as I do. For us, your death hasn’t been so much a dead end as a door.

Still, I’m always surprised to find where we now meet. Strange how that is. We meet in places where there was no time to meet while you were alive. We walk on the beach. You drive with me to a business meeting. We go looking at new cars. And I know exactly where to go to have the burrito you would have ordered. And I can still hear your voice laughing when something the size of my forearm is handed across the counter. While I’m surprised to find you where I do, I never stop appreciating that you take the time. “What the heck,” I’ve heard you say, “that’s all I’ve got these days is time. Make sure to use yours wisely.”

“My son, hurry to do your duty and
do not diminish its importance to yourself.
Do not think or say that your duty is unimportant,
for you do not know how each moral act is rewarded.”
—The Last Testament of Eleazar the Great, 1100 C.E.

It’s funny how many of the little things that you used to do, and I took for granted, I now not only see myself doing, but admire in myself what I am mimicking. When I leave my son’s or daughter’s company, I always ask, “Have you got a couple of bucks in your pocket?” When I buy them shoes, I always say, “Wear them in good health.” And though I am speaking, I hear your voice. You’re the cosmic ventriloquist. Sometimes in life I have felt like the cosmic dummy. Of course a couple of bucks doesn’t go quite as far these days. But love and caring take us where money never travels. Being loving is the healthiest way to live. These things you taught me too.

“I watched my father, a small man, work 15 and 16 hours a day until he bled from the bottoms of his feet. He came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, and he taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.” —Mario Cuomo

What I learned from you about work dad is that dignity doesn’t always come with the job but from what one brings to the job. You didn’t have the choices that your labors assured me I would have. I laugh now thinking of you stealing the tissues off of oranges so you could have toilet paper. But that’s only because I always had toilet paper. My heart swells thinking of you buying your mother her first refrigerator from money you earned selling papers on street corners through a Toronto winter and having to “duke” it out to “keep” the corner. I never remember you leaving for work after dawn. And I never remember you coming home from work being anything but exhausted. But I’ll never forget the pride you took in what you did, and if my grandfather was a tailor, and he was, and if my father was a “cutter,” and he was, then that pride in work honestly done is stitched to my soul. And I wear that notion of work that you cut for me as a garment of my pride in you.

“Sons have always a rebellious wish to be disillusioned by that which charmed their fathers.” —Aldous Huxley

Boy you must laugh to hear me going on about how proud I am of you considering how many times I wanted you to know how wrong I thought you were. The funny part is that you would just let me vent, and when I finally made you crazy you would just explode, kaplooie, and then just as facilely you would move on. Fathers don’t have enough time with their children to hold onto anger. “Never go to bed angry at someone you love,” is what you always said. I haven’t always followed that. But I wish I had.

There were so many times when Mom would scold you about something and it always amazed me how much of it you could take. It took me a long time to understand that you loved her so profoundly, and her words never scratched you that deeply. She would go off about something and you would nod and nod like you were taking notes, and when she was done you would look at her, not rising to anger, and ask simply, “Dear, would you please pass the potatoes.”

“Man is the head of the family, woman the neck that turns the head.” —Chinese Aphorism

The only anecdote that approaches this is the time we were going out to dinner for Chinese food like we did every Sunday night. And on this evening, as you told the waiter of dish after dish, he simply stood there nodding, not writing anything down. When you had finished ordering, your lack of patience and stunned curiosity crossed paths with the waiter. “Aren’t you going to write any of this down?”

“Why,” asked the waiter, “are you going to forget it?”

You loved to tell that story. And I loved that in you. You repeatedly told a story that wasn’t designed to make you look good but made you laugh. Here too was a wonderful lesson for a father to pass to a son. It is often wiser to laugh than to try and look wise. Laughter is life’s own wisdom.

“I grew up to have my father’s looks, my father’s speech patterns, my father’s posture, my father’s walk, my father’s opinions, and my mother’s contempt for my father.” —Jules Feiffer

There’s a lot of you in me, Dad. And a lot of Mom. There are times when I can still hear myself arguing her case and yours. I got so good at the cross arguments that I could probably do a better job than either of you making your points. What I can’t do now that you’re gone, is send her red roses on your anniversary as you always did. I mean I could send her the roses, but it would only make the hurt of your absence hurt more. Kids sometimes know how their parents hurt each other but often can’t see how parents love each other. Love is invisible. But not to lovers.

“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” —Sigmund Freud

I’m making copies of old photo albums. I watch myself across the years going from looking like me to looking like you. It’s not so much the eyes, or the nose, but the smile. And I’m flattered. I know you never thought of yourself as particularly good looking. As a matter of fact, the way you were raised this was not something that a man was supposed to give much thought to. And I’m not sure I’m better looking for seeing you in my smile. Though I’m smiling to see it. You liked people. People liked you. People thought you were a great guy. If people could say that about me, I would feel great. There’s a lot of things we can leave our kids. Leaving them our smile is something to smile about.

“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.” —Gabriel García Márquez

Dad you always made me feel safe. Even when you didn’t feel so secure. I never thought about this very much until years later when I had an experience while camping with my wife. We were entering a national park and were warned by the rangers that because of some recent bear attacks we should sleep in our car or a tent. As night approached and we pulled out the sleeping bags, we decided that we wanted to sleep under the stars. As we lay there under the stars, I asked her, “You heard the ranger’s warnings. What makes you feel safe sleeping outside?”

“Oh,” she said, turning over to fall asleep, “I feel safe because you’re here.” And as I lay there, unable to sleep, I wondered why I felt safe.

One summer many years ago, I found myself in Canada interviewing for a job as a lifeguard. The man conducting the interview had a bum leg and dragged himself a bit as he got up from behind the desk and walked toward me, looking hard at my features. “Is your dad’s name Syd?”

“Yeah,” I answered quietly, stunned to hear my father’s name raised in this distant locale. “Well, you got the job,” said the man.

“But…” I began to say.

“But nothing,” said the man. “When I was young, the other boys were pretty rough on me about my leg, but not your dad. He would kick anybody’s butt who gave me trouble. Like I said, you got the job.”

Dad, you never told me that story. When I asked you about it, you said, “Oh yeah, I remember. Good guy.” That was it. That was it. And your silence made a life-long impression. Yup.

While sitting writing you this letter, my son, your grandson, calls. He is graduating from high school later today. We are meeting before graduation for lunch. He wants me to bring him some black socks. Dads deliver. Yup.

Dads aren’t guys without fears or failures. For that matter none of us are. Men are guys who are trying and can be trying. Fathers are guys who try a little harder even when things havebeen a little hard. I can’t say that every dad tries his best, but I do know that being a dad can be trying.

For a man to become a father he must first become a man. Sometimes families find faults in their dads. Oftentimes dads find fault in themselves. Dads are like any of us trying to find our way. Character is a compass. You pick a star and aim toward it. You don’t always get where you’re heading but heading in the right direction in life is its own challenge.

Dad, I want to thank you for helping me to find my way. I’ve gotten lost on my own, more than once. And I’ve always found my way back to you. I love you. Even from a long way away. You always told me to tell my kids that they’re the greatest. I want you to know you’re the best.

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