A Letter To Dad From A Long Way Away
“For a man to become a father he first must become a man.”
A LETTER TO DAD FROM A LONG WAY AWAY
“It doesn’t matter who my father was;
it matters who I remember he was.”
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 doorway.
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 and laughing 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.”
What I learned from you about work dad is that dignity doesn’t
always come with the job rather dignity is what you bring to the job. You didn’t have the choices that your labors afforded me the opportunity to have. I laugh now thinking of you stealing the tissues off of oranges at fruit stand so you could have toilet paper. But that’s only because I always had toilet paper. Only people with bread complain about not having butter.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.”
—Gabriel García Márquez
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.
“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a
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 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,
and mentioned the guy’s name 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 have
been a little hard. I can’t say that every dad tries his best, but I
do know that being a dad can be trying. And 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.
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.
Noah benShea Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved