I’m seven years old. My dad’s in the next room, and I’m peeking around the corner. I thought I’d wanted the pack of gum, but now I’m not so sure. I know my daddy is an honest man, even at my young age, and I know he’ll make me return it, along with an apology. I’m afraid of what I’ll have to say to the store clerk, but I’m more afraid to see a shadow of disappointment cross my dad’s eyes, turning them a stormier shade of blue. I take tentative steps. My stomach is winding into itself. He looks at me and just like that, he knows I have something to tell him. I can feel my lip quiver and I can’t shake the words loose.
“You can tell me,” he says.
With a little more gentle prodding, I find myself dumping my guilt onto his lap, feeling lighter even through the haze of his disappointment. He surprises me by saying he is proud of me for telling him. Then we make the dreaded trip back to the store. Afterwords, he says to me, “You can always tell me anything. I’m your dad, and I’ll always love you no matter what.”
Fast forward. I’m a young adult and I’m dating someone. Things get messy, complicated. I’m awake all night. Literally the entire night I pace my apartment, heartsick and confused. I call in sick to work. I’m in no shape to assist anyone with anything. I feel like I have no one to talk to, because the person I usually confide in is the reason I feel this way. Unable to stare at the walls in my place any longer, I jump in my car and drive. I don’t have a direction, my car drives itself. When I shift into park and look up to my dad’s office, I know I’m in the right place. Safe. The woman at the reception desk sees my red eyes and says she’ll walk me right back to his office.
He’s on the phone when she opens the door for me. He takes one look at me and ends the phone call. I tell him all of it. Even what I haven’t told anyone else. I need him to tell me what to do. He listens, sitting on the front of his desk, and then he lifts some of the weight off me, helping me see why everything isn’t as bad as I think. By the end of the conversation, I know its going to be ok. I’m back in control.
Fast forward. I’m in trouble. Not I-stole-some-gum trouble or I-need-dating-advice trouble. But the real kind. I haven’t talked to my dad much lately, or anyone, really. What I’m going through has changed me. Wounded me. I’m hollow and weary, incapable of reaching out. I’m in an endless maze. Trapped.
At work, I just try to make it through the day. I’m eating lunch at my desk when the phone rings. When I hear my dad’s voice on the other end, traveling across the ocean from where he now lives, I try not to crumble. He asks how I am, I give my usual answer. My lie, because the truth is I’m such a shadow of myself that I can’t even give voice to how broken I feel.
This time he’s not buying it. “You can tell me,” he says. Then he waits.
It’s the waiting that kills me. I hunch at my desk, trying not to fall apart. He doesn’t know I’m crying. Or maybe he does.
“I can’t,” I choke out, barely a whisper.
“You can tell me,” he says again. “I’ll always love you. No matter what. Nothing is so bad that we can’t get you through it.”
I bite onto my finger, stifling the tears that are threatening to break me.
He begins guessing. I don’t give anything away. I know I can’t. There will be repercussions if I do. At my silence, he tells me he will jump on a plane as soon as we hang up, if that’s what I need. He laces together the most absurd string of despicable atrocities that a person could have been involved with, and then tells me that even if THAT was what happened to me, he would still love me, and nothing in our relationship would be different.
In spite of everything, I laugh.
When I still don’t volunteer anything, he shares something with me. A moment from his own life, when he felt like things were crumbling around him. He says, “You know what I did?”
“What?” I say, clinging to this glimmer of hope.
“I drove down to this parking lot. I remember feeling like I really didn’t know what to do. It’s an awful feeling, the hopelessness. All these years later and I still remember what it feels like.” Despite all the miles between us, his voice is clear. “I called my dad.”
Of course. My grandfather, whom I adore.
My dad continues, “He told me that he would always love me, no matter what. And that I could tell him anything,” I hear his voice catch before he can continue. “I know you’re hurting. I don’t know what’s happened, but I’m going to tell you the same thing my dad told me. That I love you. And I always will. No matter what. Everybody needs a little help sometimes, but I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”
This moment will forever be etched into my mind, into my soul. The unconditional love of a father.
I feel the crack in me widen, exposing the pain, needing it to be flushed out. “Ok,” I say, the word small, but encompassing so much. I tell him I can’t say it over the phone. I’ll write it instead. I type him an email, frantic words bleed out of me. Ten pages. As my fingers hovered over the “send” button, a calm spreads through me. Everything will be ok.
Fast forward. Its been years since I’ve had a jagged situation tear through me. I’ve found solid ground, happiness, life. The only emptiness inside me comes from a seven year battle with infertility. I show up at my dad’s office again, unannounced, this time with my husband and a little gift bag. As soon as my dad sees me, he knows I have something to tell him.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, not sure if he should be alarmed or excited.
I hand him a little blue bag with tissue paper. He gives me a quizzical look and then pulls the tissue paper out and reaches inside. He lifts a tiny blue onsie that says “grandpa.”
Our eyes meet. My strong, uncomrpomising father melts to tears.
Today I had to honor of being with all of the men I mentioned in this post. My grandfather, my father, my husband and my son. I am surrounded by amazing men. My husband is an incredible father, and I appreciate everything he does for our family.
I love that I have a grandfather who was close enough to his son to be there when my dad needed it. I love that my dad learned how to be such an amazing father from his dad. My dad has always been there for me, no matter how inconsequential or important the situation. I also love knowing I have a husband who will do the same for our kids.
“You can tell me. I’ll always love you no matter what.” He will never know how much those words meant to me.
I couldn’t be more proud to be his daughter. Happy Father’s Day Daddy, I love you.