Sunday, June 21, 2009

What My Fathers Taught Me

It’s been a year since my last blog entry, a year of many life-changing events. Being my first entry for my return to the blogosphere, I didn’t want to write about Father’s Day. But maybe this is a good place to start.

In the past year I’ve lost both my fathers. My own father has been in a nursing home since last year. His dementia has progressed rapidly, so much that he only remembers me sometimes. It has affected his ability to walk as well. Two years ago he was still hiking and dancing. Now he shuffles with a walker and needs assistance to carry out the most basic daily activities like feeding himself and bathing. Occasionally he can draw recognizable figures of cats and airplanes on his sketchpad. Those moments have become fewer and far between, as my visits to him have as well. It’s not that I don’t carry a lot of guilt for it.

This past March I lost my other father. He was my ex-father-in-law but the one I called “Dad.” I was blessed to have him a part of my life for almost twenty years. I’m still trying to look at it as a blessing instead of a loss. He would not have wanted me to dwell on the loss.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the things I’ve learned from both my fathers.

From my own father what comes to mind first is to never say anything you may regret…including “I love you.” I was around sixteen when I first got that lesson. He caught me writing “Love, Marie” on a card I was planning to give to my high school sweetheart. Okay, I was sixteen, and what did I know about love then?

My father never told me he loved me. Well, there was one time, which I’ll get to later. I remember more than once during my childhood before my mother left us, my mother asking in sign language, “You don’t love me.” Sometimes she’d ask, “Do you love me?” He’d sign back, “Of course I do.” I can’t remember if he ever said the words, “I love you,” but at five years old, our perceptions can be flawed. Once when I was cleaning out my desk, I found a stack of birthday cards he had given me over the years. They were signed simply, “Daddy.” When I had my own family and my bitterness and resentment toward him had cooled off, I’d end our visits with a hug and “I love you, Daddy.” He always responded with a pat on my shoulder and, “Yup. Okay.” A few months ago, at the end of one of my last visits at the nursing home he did respond, “I love you, too.”

What I learned from my father-in-law, “Dad,” was that love is unconditional, unwavering. It was evident in his devotion to his wife and family. At first it took me a while to learn and understand this. Sometimes at family gatherings the lot of us would get into heated discussions. We’d be shouting over each other our opinions and disagreements. An outsider might have thought we didn’t like each other, maybe even hate each other. But at the end of the day, we’d take turns hugging each other and say, “I love you.” And as I’d get into my car, I knew it.

At the reception after his memorial service, friends and family took turns sharing memories of him. There was one that has stuck with me. Dad and Mom were yelling at each other in the kitchen. She was trying to finish preparations for one of her elaborate meals. Some such argument ensued over place settings or water pitchers. Both were red in the face and their blood pressures were palpable. Mom stormed out of the kitchen. Dad yelled, “Mary! Mary!” She had thrown up her hands and kept walking without looking back. He followed her into the next room, still shouting, “Mary!” Finally, she turned and stopped. He smiled and said, “Give me a kiss.” And they made up.

So these are the things I’ve learned from both my fathers. Now it’s your turn. Think about your own father or father figures. Start your freewrite with “These are the things my father taught me…” or something along those lines. Set your timer for fifteen minutes and write without stopping or censoring. Let go…breathe…write.

I would love to hear what lessons you’ve learned. Please feel free to post them.

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