Although this is a topic which has been beat to death over the last couple of decades by psychologists and anyone else having access to a keyboard, I nonetheless feel a desire to put in my own two cents worth on the subject of the importance of fathers.
Last night I played softball with a group of my peers ranging from the mid-thirties to old geezers like me who take the field and dream that we are once again young and spry, which is, of course, a wanton fantasy. I managed to fulfill some of that fantasy by making two difficult catches in the outfield, both of which left me sprawling on the green grass, ball held up triumphantly in my outstretched glove, to return to the dugout later to the high-fives and adulation of my friends. “Way to go!” “Great catch! Good job!”
Such words of appreciation are never unappreciated.
We lost both games, but I left feeling good, which is unusual for me because for many decades, I was the world’s sorest loser. I was known to toss things in my anger, make snide remarks about the competition, and the after-game handshake – pffffffft. If my team lost – forget that, pal!! Before she died, my dear first wife would often kindly scold me for my attitude, telling me that I was embarrassing her. My response was to say that she didn’t understand competition and the male competitive drive.
She was right and I was dead wrong. But even after I began to realize that she was indeed properly focused regarding my boorish on-field behavior, I couldn’t pin down why winning meant so much to me. There was no such thing as a friendly game of anything with me. It was win or die.
What I have finally come to realize is that this drive to win at all costs was birthed by a father who not once in my life ever told me that he loved me. Not once. And that is no exaggeration. I’ll introduce you to my brother if you need verification for this, and he will tell you that our father was a completely self-absorbed man with little time for his sons. In different manners, but with the same result, he made us both feel that we were simply not wanted. I don’t know how such thinking came to be, but I have hints. His father was a turd. It passes down from generation to generation. Ask any psychologist.
What does that have to do with my bad attitude regarding winning? Simply this: I was longing for his acceptance. I wanted to hear words of appreciation from him, to see him smile in approval at something I had done, rather than to refer to me by his favorite nickname for me, which was “stupid.” Yes, you heard that correctly. He would verbalize his disgust with any of my failures by calling me stupid. Or by rolling his eyes in a manner which conveyed those words to me without the need for verbal pyrotechnics. I was a loser, a severe disappointment to him, and he was not above letting me know it by either verbal pronouncement or bodily expression. Add to that his absence at my pee-wee football games, my little league baseball games, or any of the other things which I tried as sports and you have a recipe for a little kid starving for the slightest sign of approval from his dad.
Thus was born the perfectionist, the child who thought that perhaps if he won the gold trophy, took the first place prize, succeeded with straight A’s in school, or in some way performed the astounding, he would get that smile of approval, that “Atta boy!” he was so desperate for.
It never came.
Even when I was forty years old and won a local bowling tournament, praise was just not in my father’s lexicon. My parents were up to our home on the Susquehanna River, visiting from Maryland. As the wives talked, I suggested that there was a bowling tournament I was going to go to and if he was bored (which he was) he could tag along and watch. After going through the main competition, I worked my way up the stepladder elimination to the final, where I rolled an impressive 234 game to edge out my competitor. My father’s response?
“Why didn’t you roll a 300 game?”
Seriously, that’s what he said. No compliment, no appreciation. As we drove home in silence, I realized that this is who he is. He’ll never give me a compliment, never have anything good to say to me.
A couple of years later, there was yet another incident in which we were working together and I mishandled a piece of lumber, eliciting once again the word “stupid” muttered under his breath but just loud enough for me to hear. A few month later I confronted him after Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house. I was not angry, but sad. I did not yell, but simply and quietly told him that perhaps he didn’t know it, but he had been using this nickname for me as long as I could remember. I informed him – still politely, but firmly – that I was not stupid, that I had a high-level sales job, was a national sales trainer, and people trusted me to fix their expensive equipment. I said all this looking him square in the eyes, and towards the end, he looked away, embarrassed.
I never again heard that word in my presence.
I’d like to think that somewhere down the line he might have realized what he had done, but I doubt it. He was pretty set in his ways. He couldn’t get used to my giving him a hug when he came up with Mom to visit from time to time. I would hug him and he would stiffen up, even when he would kind of half-heartedly return that hug to me. Perhaps because his father was a cold and distant man, my Dad never learned himself how to express affection.
I didn’t have any tears for him at his funeral. Tears are shed over the loss of those things which are held in the heart to be precious. That sense simply never developed. I was told I gave him a wonderful eulogy, a eulogy in which I talked about our distance, but also explained how I had come to understand him from a distance and forgive him for not being the best father he could have been. Here is what I said:
So I have come full circle now, having made the same mistakes with my children that my father made with me. The difference is that over the years, I strove to learn why I was the way I was. Karen and I had six children, and the last two – the twins – heard something from me that my father never told me: “I love you.” I made it a point, beginning with my second child, to hug and say I love you. It wasn’t easy at first. I was too much like my father in the beginning, but by the end, I was giving of myself more freely than he ever had.
And I can play softball without losing my temper if we get beat by the other team. Perhaps this means little to you. For me, this is becoming whole and accepting not only the world as it is, but myself as I am. I don’t have to be perfect. I realized some time ago that dad was gone and I would never hear those words of appreciation that I have so worked and longed for. And in God’s grace, I am managing to let it all go and just be me, for better or worse.
So this Father’s Day, you Dads out there remember that your words can either build up or destroy a life. Hug your children today. Do it a lot. Because as Karen told me over and over again when she urged me to be more involved in my children’s lives “You will turn around and they will be grown up and they will be gone.”
And she was right.