I just finished Springsteen’s biography. In the least surprising book review ever, I loved it. Naturally, a lot of the focus was on Bruce’s complicated relationship with his father, who was a brooding, unfeeling presence for much of Bruce’s life but was diagnosed late in life with mental illness. One passage struck me in particular:
“Those whose love we wanted but could not get, we emulate. It is dangerous but it makes us feel closer, give us an illusion of the intimacy we never had. It stakes our claim upon that which was rightfully ours but denied. In my twenties, as my song and my story began to take shape, I searched for the voice I would blend with mine to do the telling. It is a moment when through creativity and will you can rework, repossess and rebirth the conflicting voices of your childhood, to turn them into something alive, powerful, and seeking light. I’m a repairman. That’s part of my job. So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life . . . put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work. One night I had a dream. I’m onstage in full flight, the night is burning, and my dad, long dead, sits quietly in an aisle seat in the audience. Then . . . I’m kneeling next to him in the aisle, and for a moment, we both watch the man on fire onstage. I touch his forearm and say to my dad, who for so many years sat paralyzed by depression, “Look Dad, look . . . that guy onstage … that’s you … that’s how I see you.”
My father died four years ago today. No compliment I could pay him would surprise my friends at this point. He was and is my hero, and any success or happiness I have in life is thanks to his guidance and his sacrifices. But with the Springsteen biography fresh in mind, and my own son’s mind exploding with insights and revelations every day, I wanted to focus on the greatest gift my father gave me: his approval.
My father challenged me to be my best, just as he never accepted anything less out of himself. When I got four hits off of superstar Little League pitcher Pat Zec of the Centre Shoppe team, my father’s praise was minimal and his constructive criticism of the rest of my game was plentiful. The same was true of my academic performance- good grades were met with satisfaction but room for improvement was always found.
That firm but challenging approach to parenting can go two ways, really. It can continue forever and create grudges and awkward silences. Or it can slowly fade away as the full person forms and you become some kind of peers, and in that case it becomes apparent that the frequent challenges and the constructive criticism were a sign of faith in your ability to do better and to grow.
As I aged, I made a lot of mistakes and I was far from perfect. I made bad professional choices, I had relationships fail, and I was far from the perfect son. But in those moments when I was lowest, a remarkable thing happened. Rather than criticize me or dwell on those failings, my father told me how proud he was of me, and he stood by my side through all of it. He tossed aside his Eastern European stoicism and he hugged me. He told me how proud of me he was.
I came to realize that my father’s perfect love was subtle and beautifully nuanced. When I needed a push to do better because I wasn’t reaching my potential, a firm hand guided me to greater heights. When I needing his rock of support instead, he provided it unfailingly.
In the last ten years of his life, I don’t think a conversation between us ended without him telling me how much he loved me, how I was the best son he could have imagined, and how proud he was of me. And then he was gone, and life gets hard and even supported by family it can be a lonely journey without that type of unconditional love.
So in those hardest moments, when nothing seems to be going right, I find that unconditional support sustains me. And I never have to reckon with what my father felt for me or the nature of our relationship. He did me the great service of being open hearted and forthright. In my dreams, I don’t see the man who I wished he could have been or some version of myself trying to win his admiration. I see him and I see me, in our truest forms, and it gives me peace. I love you, Dad.