Learning What It Meant To Respect My Father

How my father’s triumph over failure has made me a better father

Dear Boys,

There’s a secret I need to share with you.

It’s a secret that I’ve been carefully preparing since you were born; a lab-tested vaccination against the growing virus of doubt that, I know from experience, will only strengthen over your adolescence if left untreated.

Let me begin with a story.

“Nothing’s going to change my world…”

Once upon a time, I was a sobbing sixteen-year-old behind the steering wheel of my old 1986 brown Volkswagen Jetta.

With my window rolled down and the CD player blaring the Beatle’s “Across the Universe,” I cursed God, and life, and the cruel irony of the song’s chorus.

“Jai Guru Deva Om. Nothing’s going to change my world.”

A few hours earlier it had been an idyllic Saturday morning. It was late spring. I was a teenager sleeping in. Life made perfect sense.

The look on my father’s face as he entered my room, however, had immediately cast a dark shadow on the warm midmorning light streaming in from the window overhead. Still groggy as he approached, I was shocked into a rude awakening by a single phrase, six words total.

“I need your help moving out.”

It wasn’t a question or an explanation or even an apology. It was a brutal, blunt announcement placed at my blanketed feet in a pathetic tone.

Before I knew how to respond he had disappeared out my bedroom door, leaving me suddenly painfully alone. I sat up in bed, and as my feet hit my blue shag carpet the tears begin flowing.

I had never felt this before as if the world around me was crumbling to dust.

Numb from the shock, I unconsciously dressed. As I walked out of the bedroom, I passed my younger brother’s room to the right. His door was open and his face was red and pocked from crying, undoubtedly victim to a similar exchange just moments earlier.

Our puffy eyes met but there were no words to accompany the manure pile of feelings just dumped over us. Instead, we walked together silently downstairs, the unwilling first-responders in the voluntary unraveling of our family.

At the base of the stairs stood my mother and father. My mother’s face was red with fresh tear tracks on her cheeks.

“JUST LOOK! LOOK AT WHAT YOU’VE DONE!” she wailed, pointing up toward us. It would be the only time in my life that I really heard my mother yell.

Dad, broken and unable to respond, stood taking her blows like a bludgeoned boxer on the ropes.

I tried to look to him for an explanation, but he had nothing to offer — no consolation, no explanation, only humiliation. I felt sickened by his humiliation as if it were an airborne illness spreading rapidly through the house.

I vaguely recall loading a rented Uhaul with a sad collection of second-hand furniture from a store nearby and then unloading it in a small, empty apartment that smelled like a smoker recently died there; all foreign sights and smells for a family that, in my mind, had been perfect the night before.

I got into my car and tried to drive away from the stupid cruelty of it all.

And what did I get in return? John, Paul, Ringo, and George singing “Jai Guru Deva Om. Nothing’s going to change my world.”

Nothing’s going to change my world?

In less than 60 seconds, a lifetime of respect for my father had evaporated.

Respect is earned, not given

I emotionally locked my father in his bare apartment that Saturday morning, refusing to reopen the door for far too long.

My father, on the other hand, refused to give up on us.

Immediately after my parent's separation, he was as present in our family’s life as he could be. A few evenings a week he was back at home, helping out where he could, where he knew he should.

He never stopped attending our school or sporting events, he took us on a summer vacation to Yellowstone and, most importantly, he fought like a lion to regain mom’s trust and love.

He was so present, in fact, that most of our neighbors never knew my parents had been apart.

For well over two years he made overcoming his personal mistakes the top priority while I watched skeptically from the sidelines.

Eventually, my parents got back together and bought a new home in a new neighborhood. My family was once again reunited… almost.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said and moved out to attend community college.

Notwithstanding my angsty late-teenage state-of-mind, my father still didn’t give up on me. He fully supported my stubborn decision and stood anxiously on the sidelines of my life while I clumsily tried to figure out the game of life.

I told myself I didn’t want him there, but my heart knew better.

And then, one day, my heart finally won

It was a late summer afternoon when Dad stopped by to pick me up.

He had agreed to help me move to a new apartment and, along the way, we stopped for dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant from my childhood. Memories flooded over me as I sat alone with my dad, just the two of us, eating fried rice and orange chicken again as if the world had never changed.

Driving me to my new apartment after dinner, the words came spilling out of me; words that had been dammed up for too long.

I told him how much I loved him and how sorry I was for holding onto hate.

“I told myself I’d lost all respect for you,” I confessed ashamedly. “But I never knew until now what it meant to respect you.”

I had realized that, until the separation, my life had been served up to me on a silver platter. It wasn’t until I watched my father fight for our family that I realized that respect wasn’t something given but rather earned, often as a result of hardship.

“Thank you. Thank you for teaching me what it means to respect someone,” I told him with tears of gratitude in my eyes.

My father has never been overly emotional with matters of the heart, but I knew from the silence coming from the driver's seat that my words were acknowledged and appreciated.

“You’re welcome,” was all he needed to say.

The Secret

You’ve not said as much to me boys, but I know you’ve already seen too much of the magical in your life die away: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Leprechauns.

They’ve all been slain on playgrounds with school buddies or late at night as you’ve whispered in hushed tones between bunk beds.

“I always knew they weren’t real,” you’ve told one another confidently, ignoring that your heart knows better.

My fear is for the final and ultimate death of your childhood; the acknowledgment that your idea of me was just as fictitious as Santa and the rest.

So, before that day arrives and you’re suddenly trapped sobbing in a beat-up Jetta on a road to nowhere, let me offer you my secret to life; one that eventually I hope you’ll share with your children:

  • I am not a perfect father and I never will be.
  • I will make mistakes in life, some big and some small.
  • I will lose many battles and win just a few.
  • And I will never have all the answers.

This is because, in reality, I’ll always be just a slightly older version of you.

Someday down the road of life, I hope we can enjoy a car ride together and you’ll know that, notwithstanding my imperfections and failures, past and future, I never stopped fighting for you.

That, in the end, I lived up to my father’s example; an example born not out of perfection, but rather perfect imperfection.

“Sounds of laughter, shades of life
Are ringing through my open ears
Inciting and inviting me
Limitless, undying love
Which shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe”

“Jai Guru Deva, Om
Nothing’s gonna change my world”

Love,

Dad

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