It dawns on me that I didn’t write about my dad for Father’s Day. I should. His birthday’s coming up, so I will let this tribute serve for both. He’d be okay with that.
The memory of my friendship with my dad is one I treasure, because it took decades to achieve.
He was a complicated guy. He carried a lot of baggage from his own childhood. He told stories, but no one understood the scars a very sensitive little boy developed from feeling that he was unlovable.
As a father, he demanded a lot. He was judgemental. He had a rigid moral code, one that had no bend in it. His own relatives jokingly called him “The Pope.”
Beneath it all there was a deep sadness. My dad was a man longing for connection, yet he always felt alone. He was a good man, a hard worker, and he loved me, his only child.
I didn’t always like him. He wasn’t easy to like and he knew it. His well of disapproval was deep. He was a very tall man with a deep voice. He intimidated people, and he took a perverse pleasure in that.
My dad was also a romantic, a dreamer. He cried watching sentimental movies and teared up listening to beautiful music. He was a writer, though his style was from another age. He read fantasy adventures and spy novels. His well-worn copy of The Jungle Book is on my bookshelf now. His Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books led me to Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Maria Doria Russell.
Nature enthralled him, but people in the real world seemed to always disappoint his expectations.
After my mother died, and he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he dropped all the defenses he’d built against the world. He let me in.
I had a family of my own by then, and I was struggling to cope after my mom died. I was functioning, but it wasn’t good. He saw. And then I was taking care of him.
His well of approval suddenly became bottomless. He was easy to talk to, easy to care for, easy to listen to. His advice was offered with an understanding that it was only his opinion, not a voice from the burning bush. We laughed together, and he often laughed at himself. He was kind. He swore. That was a new side to the pope, and it made us both laugh.
Despite my own grief, my own sense of being overwhelmed, I discovered my dad was becoming my friend. It was a gift so surprising, so antithetical to the resentments we’d both harbored, that it cut away years of distance.
In his final months, he displayed a serenity and a kindness that he’d clearly had inside all his life, a basic goodness that he’d never felt safe relying on before.
I am sad for my dad, because I know he was a lonely guy. He hoped a family would create connection, a place where he belonged. And in the end it did. But it took a lifetime, and it only happened when he let it happen.
I miss that guy. And I’m grateful I got to know him.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.