Sunday, June 21, 2009

I Finally Know How He Feels

Baton received
In what has now become somewhat my custom, I am once again taking a break in my current series, paying tribute to my recently-departed Father In-Law (an intermission, BTW, brought about by more than just the specific occasion of today’s post — and I’ll explain more about that later on), in order to pay a different kind of tribute; one marking what I consider to be somewhat of a watershed moment for me.

Today is Father’s Day; a day of wildly conflicting emotions for your truly.

Dad’s Day has always been an occasion in which I’ve spent time reflecting on the relationship I have with my own Father, one that has grown so much closer in the past ten years or so since the passing of my step-Mom, Maxine.

I can’t accurately describe just how special it’s been for me in recent years to receive the love and focused friendship that I have from the man whom I worshipped from afar for so many years, but whose attention seemed so unattainable when I was growing up.

Hmm; I guess I need to explain that last statement.

My Dad and I weren’t particularly close when I was a kid, although I never had any doubt that he loved me and appreciated me for whom I was. It’s just that there wasn’t enough of him to go around, what with him being virtually a single parent to five boys throughout much of my early childhood. And given my somewhat introverted personality, I was never the type to openly vie for his affections or attention.

He coached my elder brothers in Little League as well as being highly involved their Cub Scout troop activities; heck, he was even the president of the PTA for awhile. But by the time I had reached the age to be involved in those types of activities, my natural Mother was already well into the throes of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease. We were all in flux; those extra-curricular activities no longer had a place in our family’s life.

Within the next five years, my Mom passed away, my Dad remarried, and we moved to Southern California. My life underwent changes too numerous to recount here. I suffered considerably at the hand and tongue of Maxine, and my Pop was never the wiser. He was under enough pressure to keep a roof over our heads; I was more concerned with keeping mine, which I might not have if I made trouble for Maxine. I just decided he didn't need to know. I just kept quiet and lived with the abuse.

Ours was the quintessential Cats in the Cradle kind of father/son relationship. He wanted to spend time with me, but just couldn't find the time. But it was okay, really. I was realistic.

As time passed the passive nature I inherited from my Dad began to kick in and I grew surprisingly comfortable with the fact that he simply was who he was and never held him in contempt for it. In fact, I believe it was just that firm belief that he really did love me that kept me from going off the deep end during those confusing and emotionally-charged early teen years dealing with Maxine. However as I entered high school things slowly began to change.

I became involved in gymnastics in 10th grade and in relatively short order began to emerge as a successful athlete. My Dad attended nearly all of my local competitions in high school, sometimes with my step-Mom, but usually without. However when it came time for the CIF* Finals my senior year — the highest wrung in the ladder of high school athletic competition to which I could attain — he wasn’t there.

*California Interscholastic Federation

Unfortunately for me, CIF Finals were scheduled the same week as Maxine & Dad’s fifth wedding anniversary, which they’d planned to celebrate in Hawaii.

Sure, I understood; the arrangements had been made; the tickets purchased well in advance. It was Cats in the Cradle once again; but this time it really hurt.

I took first place on rings that night, and for all intents and purposes, validated my existence as a significant human being; I was no longer the under-achieving, pint-sized, boy who Maxine routinely told, “you’ll never amount to anything.” I was a champion; I had now accomplished something that no one would, or could, ever take away from me.

Call me narcissistic; call me overly-dramatic, but that moment, I believe, set the tone for the rest of my life. I won more than a medal that night; I won my dignity.

And the woman who branded those words into my young brain, along with the only man I’d ever wanted to emulate, weren’t there to see it.

What a bittersweet moment that was, and how sobering it is to realize only now that I have come full circle in understanding its true meaning in my life.

It’s important for me to note that unless you’ve read my blog for awhile, you may not realize that I don’t hate my Step-Mom, but have completely forgiven her for the way she treated me. And contrary to the tone of the last few paragraphs, I don’t blame her for anything, but in fact, appreciate the many lessons and practical applications she taught that have stayed with me throughout the years.

Old emotions, however, no matter how distant in the past, don’t exist in a vacuum. They may become augmented over time and/or diffused by forgiveness, but we never truly divorce them; they never truly go away. Some of them we even keep around like pets, feeding and nurturing them on a daily basis. However sometimes they need circumstances to resurface; sometimes reinforcing the forgiveness that changed their previous destructive course in our lives, other times, simply floating just above the brink of consciousness, soothing or tormenting our psyches, whatever the case my be.

Such is my frame of mind this Father’s Day.

It’s in the cards.
I’ve said it so many times it might as well be my mantra: I’m a lucky guy. Lucky to have had a taste of success in this life on a variety of levels; lucky to have a pair of kids who are well on their way to leading happy, successful lives in their own right; and damn lucky to have a wife who not only puts up with my shortcomings and goofiness, is simply a superstar in the eyes of nearly everyone who knows her.

Like most men, I’d like to think that I’m the go-to guy in my household, but I know better. I’ve never had a single worry about what would happen to Michelle if I met an untimely demise; she would be fine; she would be taken care of, financially; she would no doubt live out her life confidently and in full charge of her faculties. That’s just the way she is: a take-charge kinda gal; a scrappy, yet incredibly generous and giving soul. Apart from certain members of her family (whom like I said earlier, I’ll talk about another time), I’ve never seen a person who’s had any chance to known her who hasn’t felt completely at ease. I’m obviously biased, but I’m not stretching the truth here — everybody loves Michelle.

And while I am obviously buoyed by that fact, I’d have to say that I’m just as proud — or even more proud of the fact that so much of her has rubbed off on our kids, particularly, our daughter, Amy.

One of Michelle’s most astounding traits in my estimation, is her ability to procure greeting cards that offer the coolest design as well as the most poignant, heartfelt, perfectly worded sentiments. I honestly don’t know how she does it. I do okay in picking out cards, but every now and then I just have to settle for ones that are ‘okay’ and then attempt to offset the ‘cheese’ factor with a more appropriate hand-written addendum on the card.

But she never needs to resort to such unnecessary extra effort. She just signs ‘I love you’ and her name; the card says the rest — every.freaking.time.

Well, the good news is, she’s somehow mystically transferred that power to Amy. My daughter already had a string of greeting card hits several times over coming into to today, but this morning, when Michelle presented me with an envelope adorned with an Atlanta postmark, I knew it would be more of the same. What I didn’t know was that this time, Amy would truly hit it out of the park.
It’s little things
that make Dads heroes,
Things not seen…
Sacrifices made
while living out
each day’s routine.
It’s the little things a father does,
the things he knows he must,
the ‘being there’ when each day’s through,
the love that builds up trust.
And though there’s not a list
of everything he’s done,
the heart remembers
and gives thanks
for each and every one.

You’ve always been there for me —
and since Father’s Day is here,
I wanted you to know
how much I admire you,
how much I love you,
and how proud I am
that you’re my Dad.

My heart melted as I read those words, despite the sappiness, because I knew they were true.

And as if that wasn’t enough, she, unlike her Mother, didn’t stop there. She took a page out of her Pop’s book and added a lengthy, wonderful, killer hand-written note about how well she appreciated the bond that we share, and how every year that passes, our relationship grows stronger and stronger. I mean, for gawdsakes, how can you beat that?

Say what you mean to say
I started out this story with a point to make, and it wasn’t to rattle on emotionally about my bragging rights as someone lucky enough to be a part of a great family.

What I had today was an epiphany; an ah-ha moment. And I didn't arrive there by accident. I was preceded there by my Father; I just never realized before today how similar our respective paths had been.

I finally understood why my Dad responds to our relationship the way he does; I now know why he repeatedly reminds me that he loves me each and every time we talk on the phone.

Back in 2004, in my first and most prolific year of posting to this blog, I wrote a three-part series in response to the question asked by a dear friend and fellow-blogger, “Who was your Father?” In that story I explained in detail much of my early relationship with my Dad, as well as the basic gory details of my misadventures with Maxine. It was the first of my oft-mentioned allusions to Harry Chapin’s seminal 1974 hit Cats in the Cradle.

It’s highly unlikely I need to explain the gist of song’s message, so very apropos to father/son relationships in our day and age. But just in case you’re unfamiliar with it, simply put, its moral is that of the irony of learned behavior — more specifically — if you think you don’t have time for your kids now, beware; they probably won’t have time for you later. The concept that, ‘we all eventually become our parents’ plays a particularly key role in Chapin’s wonderfully astute but simply-crafted object lesson.

After I turned 40, my life changed a great deal. I did a lot of soul-searching; a lot of prospecting for perspective. A few years later, my StepMom, Maxine passed away, and I began to search my heart for how I truly felt about her. During that process is when I rediscovered my Dad.

Unfortunately for both of us, due to the overpowering strength of Maxine’s personality, my relationship with him had remained basically unchanged since the time I’d lived at home — warm, but still distant. It was nobody’s fault; it just was.

But now I had the opportunity to really get to know him; to truly know and appreciate him for the man he was; I finally began to see the similarities in our respective personalities — the good as well as the not-so-good. I could for the first time in my life say with conviction, “If there’s anything you like about the person I am, you can thank my Pop.” I was proud to realize how much we had in common.

As mentioned in that story I wrote five years ago, in a Father’s Day card I sent to my Dad sometime in the early 2000s, I added a hand-written sentiment, similar to the one Amy included in her card to me today. I transcribed the chorus from the song, Wind Beneath My Wings, not because I’m partial to cheesy songs, mind you, but because of one eloquently-crafted line from it that perfectly emulated the sentiment I wanted to deliver to my Dad that day:

Did you ever know you are my hero; you’re everything I would like to be?

I’d been thinking it for years, but was totally unaware that I’d never actually said it to him before. The next day he called me in tears. “Did you really mean that,” he sobbed, “Am I really your hero?”

I don’t want to take even a moment of your time here psychoanalyzing that moment in my father’s life. I don’t know if was really that surprised at the notion or merely caught off-guard that after all those years I would suddenly offer such a compliment. But I do know one thing; it changes a man when someone truly regards him as a hero, especially when he really doesn’t believe he’s earned the title.

I finally know how my Dad felt that day. I know what a humbling thing it is to truly experience the Biblical concept of having one’s children rise up and call you blessed.

Like I said, I’m a lucky guy.

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