I’m a dad
I’m a Dad
Father’s Day will be upon us in a couple of weeks. Like many fathers of adult children I take a step back and evaluate the job I did raising them. That self-evaluation process revealed many good things as well as glaring inconsistencies and failures. Was I a good Dad? Am I one now? I don’t know. I’ll let you decide.
I do know that I am extremely proud of my two sons. They have turned out to have successful but disparate careers and experiences in directions I never considered. Was I partly responsible for their attitudes and life choices? My oldest once told me I was the most ethical person he had ever met. Maybe that was a misplaced faith. Fathers will always go through periods of self-doubt. Then, we say we did the best job we could given the circumstances, but could have done better.
I attribute the majority of my parenting skills to my own dad. He was a man of few words, born in 1898 of German immigrants. He grew up in West Virginia with no cars, just his quarter horse (it was fast) and then lived to see a human walk on the Moon. Incredible. Many have said he was the greatest, kindest person they knew. He was a farmer and taught by example. He taught me to recognize a man by his character not by his skin color or social status, long before Martin Luther King said those words. It is sad that my children will never meet their Grandfather.
My sons were born two years and four days apart. I was there for both of their deliveries. People will talk about how beautiful they are when just born. Actually, they are ugly looking alien creatures covered in a strange goo. Then as I carried each of them to be weighed I realized I helped create a human being. And was awed.
My wife and I decided in 1990 that day-care just wasn’t working for us. The paycheck I earned was almost the equivilent of the day-care costs and although the providers we chose were good, a parent was better. So I became a stay-at-home dad. Through a fortuitous event I was able to collect un-employment for the first two years. Since we had gone to having one car I loaded up the kids on the city bus to go to the un-employment office each week to get that check and to re-register. It was challenging to stand in line with two little kids trying to keep them happy. We actually had fun going to the downtown mall for entertainment afterwards. People did stare though. Women would remark at the grocery how cute we were. A dad with his kids for a day. I just smiled. We were together every day.
We would take long walks in a carriage built for one kid but they sat one behind the other just fine. We would walk to the town common and drink the juice we bought at the grocery. Just watching people going about their daily lives. This was the beginning of my teaching them that there may be unusual seeming people and to be accepting of them.
We continued for a couple of years doing things and going places together all the time, all the while teaching that although people were different, they were still just like us. Then I became associated in a grassroots effort to establish a homeless shelter in our town. I became really involved and was a member of the board of directors, then to president of that board and finally to executive director of that social service agency. Throughout it all I was still responsible for caring for my two sons. I found it was necessary to take them to meetings and speaking engagements with me. I recall one very important private meeting with the Mayor, Community Development Director and City Council where I needed to advocate for homeless services in the town. They all watched as I set up the kids with books and crayons in a corner of the room. I could feel their eyes staring at us. My two guys were so good that day. I got the funding I was seeking. Afterward the Mayor and a couple of the council members complimented me about my kids and my audacity in bringing them. I think that was one reason I got the funding.
The kids also found I too was unsual. My youngest and I went to the hardware store to get a tool for my truck. I wasn’t sure of the correct size and asked if I could test it first. They said no, I had to buy it. “Tell you what, I will leave my 13 year old kid as collateral to make sure I pay you after the test”. They agreed. When I got back from the parking lot the whole store was laughing at me with my son joining in. Hey, it worked though !!
I would bring my guys, as they were older, to the shelter when I was working. They got to meet all kinds of people from so many walks of life. They learned to accept them for who they were, not the usual perception people have of a homeless person. I have to think that throughout all of these experiences they watched, listened and learned. I was fullfilling my obligation as a parent. I taught by example, just like my dad. I never imagined at that time I would eventually become a homeless person.
Life takes different turns. I separated from my wife when the kids were 15 and 17. There is no blame to be placed upon that event. We were both responsible for it. I still love her to this day but could not continue to live with her. I thought about staying together “for the kids”. I realized there could be nothing good to come of that. What example would I communicate by staying in an untenable relationship? I remember my 17 year old, with tears in his eyes saying “Dad, I can’t do the things you do”. I reassured him he didn’t have to. Just be himself.
I moved back to Ohio and during those first two years I stayed in touch with my guys. They would visit. My wife and I even took a vacation with the kids to Georgia. I then started to decline. I lost my job after having a such successful career. I had no phone or internet. I lost contact with the kids during those teenage years, what some consider a time when they really need a dad. Not to tell them what to do but for guidance and suggestion. You change your parenting style as they grow older. I feel the guilt to this day that I abandoned them at a time of greatest need. I wanted them to see their dad as a success not a failure. I always told myself that when I had success I would contact them. Success never came. I was living “off the grid”. I realize now that they just wanted to hear from their dad. Success didn’t enter into it. There was a five year period when we had no contact. The guilt built upon more guilt. I didn’t realize at the time that I was very ill. I was suffering from Major Depression Disorder and didn’t recognize it. I also was addicted to alcohol. I eventually crashed and burned. Then got better with a lot of help from some really great people.
The trepidation I felt six months ago when I found the strengh to re-connect with them, as I sent e-mails, was off the charts. When I saw the symbols for two new emails from them, I hesitated in fear. What would I read? Was I prepared for rejection or hatred? I waited for hours before opening those two messages. I paced the room, imagining I could hear their thoughts, “why talk to me now”? Or was this going to be a fairy-tale happy ending. I was elated at the same time terrified. You know, I was absent for a long time through a crucial period in their lives. So much happened to the three of us in those intervening years. I can’t turn back time and make it all better. I can still be a dad today though. Maybe our relationship will be different but can be significant.
I finally read those letters. Each one basically said, “Hey Dad. Haven’t heard from you for a while”. It was neither a welcome or rejection. It was an opening. It was my choice to use it. I have some smart kids. I agonized for hours over my response. So much depended on the words I used in my reply. Those words are private, between the three of us, nothing earth shattering, an acknowledgement that we are all still here, connected somehow. I ended each reply with “I love you so much, Dad”.
Over the following months I have learned a little of their lives. They are still reluctant to really open up, they may be getting there though. They have not revealed what they think of me. Again, I teach by example and try to tell them everything. A bit at a time. This isn’t a reality show. Just like real life, it takes time. I still don’t know if they want an open relationship with me. When or if that happens I am sure I will hear things from them I don’t want to hear, but need to listen to. I’m ready for that.
My oldest critiqued this story and gave me suggestions. Overall, he approved. I learned a little more of him through that process. My youngest just sent five words, “Thank you for writing that”. That sentence means so much.
This story has no ending. It will be a continuing journey of re-discovery.
My oldest favorite son decided to enter the Army National Guard. He is in the infantry, the pointy end of the stick. He served a tour in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. From what he has told me he is very good at his job. He doesn’t quit or give up. He is responsible for keeping a bunch of guys safe. I have never told him that I was, secretly, totally against him joining the military. I was a child of the Vietnam war and affected by all the upheaval, distrust and hatred that war created. I envisioned him standing on that hill with a rifle at Kent State. Times are different now. It was his decision to do what he thought was right. I had his back regardless. I like to think that I taught him to always do “the right thing”. He graduated from university and is following in my footsteps as he is now working for the state in a social service agency. (The same office I worked in). I missed his going away parties when he was deployed as well as his coming home parties. A father should be there to see his son off to war and to greet him upon his safe return. I failed that test.
My youngest favorite son has a career in housing rehab. We sent him to a performing arts charter high school. He is talented. The hours I waited in the car as did his piano lessions. I should have guessed his career since he created so many unique things from Legos. I missed his graduation celebration performance which I heard was amazing. Another failure on my part. He decided to not continue school but became very good at what he does. You should see his beautiful home creations. If I had been there I would have told him to do what you want to do regardless what others may think. Sure, I wanted him to go to university also. But do what you like and like what you do, and excel. Like my dad, he is a man of few words.
So, was I a good dad? Am I one now? Do my failures outweigh the good things I taught? I have learned in the past few years that there are things one does that can’t be forgiven nor forgotten. Is my being at times a negligent father one of them? Such are my thoughts on this Father’s Day.