Dad started singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” today at the kitchen table, and as always, he choked up.
“It was a terrible war,” he said. “They all are.”
Then he went on to say, “I’m a sentimental man. But it’s real. I mean it.”
I know Dad means it. I’ve known it for a long time. In a strange bit of juxtaposition, today I came across a letter I wrote to my Dad when I was 22. I was very, very angry at him for an argument we had. It ended badly, with him physically throwing me out of his room when I stood my ground. In retaliation, I took his car and drove very, very fast around the Olympic peninsula, returning to my parents’ home in the wee hours of the morning. (Like that was really intelligent.)
A long time ago, I wrote an essay about myself. I found myself struggling with words to describe you, and to describe my feelings about you. I kept coming up with metaphors about rocks — things that reflected both strength and immovability. And no one would question that you are both of those things.
Somehow, Dad, it is different growing up as your daughter and not as your son. For all the femininity that is within me, I am still as strong and independent as my brothers – a person quite capable of standing on her own two feet. To accept this in a son, I believe, is less difficult than to accept it in me. Perhaps it is for this reason that years of feelings welled up inside me as we spoke tonight, and I realized I needed to be accepted, in the same way my brothers are respected, once and for all….
I understand your strength. I understand your pride, and that you cannot show weakness most of all to me. I see the softness and warmth that you have as a father. But I have never seen the side of you that could say to me, ‘I am wrong,’ or ‘I am sorry.’
…Tonight, however, just for once in my 22 years, I needed to hear something. I needed to hear something other than ‘dismissed.’
I believe you rejected me tonight because for the first time in my life I was terribly insubordinate to you. I said no.
…I love you but I have always been afraid of you. Part of my growing up and turning twenty-two was finally fighting this love-fear feeling about my father. “They” say some things like this are never gotten over, but I’m not writing a psych book and I could care less what anyone else has to say about my need for ‘reaffirmation.’
…Do you know how much it meant to me when you said you wanted to take me fishing and just to talk to me this summer? I guess that was the first time you had ever really wanted to sit down and share those words of wisdom with me that I have always imagined you have with my brothers. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as the day you asked me about going fishing.
This is the grown-up me that you may not always notice, Dad. It isn’t the woman that you and Mom have often doubted would have enough love — unselfish love — to be happy in marriage. This is the me that my friends have come to know, the one that has a lot of love to give, but needs it in return, too.
…I need to hear that you could say you were sorry. I need, just once, to see that side of you. And I’m sorry, but I’m not sure why. I just know it’s a fact.
You may not like me very well after you read this letter. You may be able to dismiss it, or say I’m upset, or say I’m trying to fight you. I’m not, however, doing any of those things. With every once of love in my heart, I’m showing you everything that’s there. And Dad, that more than anything else demonstrates my tremendous love and trust and admiration for you.
Please don’t take this letter as any form of criticism. Take it as what it is — just a very big step in your daughter’s final transition into adult and womanhood.”
How did the story end? My Dad said he was sorry. He showed me the love and respect I so desperately needed then. Our relationship changed forever.
2 responses to “Real emotions from a real man”
Betsy, this is such a candid and noteworthy post. I read it a couple of times and was deeply touched by it because I struggled with some of the same issues with my own father. Dad’s “tender” side became more apparent as he experienced the vulnerability associated with aging and illness in the later years of his life. That widened the range of emotion and authenticity in our relationship. Although I know my father respected my strength and independence in earlier years, there was a palpable difference in what he expected of and how he related to my brothers. The validation (and love) was expressed but it took me a long time to tune into the frequency. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to experience my dad and the beauty of our relationship, as I experienced your dad and the beauty of yours.
Thanks for your kind comment. I felt both compelled to reflect on the changes in our relationship, and a little nervous about revealing those raw feelings now 33 years past. Finding a letter from your 22 year old self is a strange kind of flash back. I am grateful for the time we’ve had – time I never expected, given that he had his first of three heart attacks when he was 46 – and the opportunity to develop a deep and reciprocal relationship.