6/03/2005

Father and Daughter

My father turns 70 today. I've sent cards, presents, and some "Over the Hill" paraphernalia; but thanks to finances and commitments here, I wasn't able to send myself to Florida to celebrate with him. And the Cat's in the Cradle and the silver spoon.

Forgive the melodrama, but my heart breaks at the thought of my father disappointed, and me as the cause. As his only daughter, I should be the one who always comes through. My heart will break again when he tells me gently over the phone that it's okay, he understands, my work is important and he'll see me soon.

It was ever thus. I mess up, fall short, fall down; and my father, a Federal Reserve of compassion, tells me how proud he is of me, how much he loves me, and what a great job he thinks I am doing. Sometimes I turn to him in disbelief, thinking surely he has confused me with someone else. It's then that I see we have the same eyes and the same nose, and I remember that I am named for his dear mother, who I never met.

I make a little game of it, this genetics thing. I treasure every little trait I can find in common with him: a fussy compulsiveness towards neatly labeled folders; a love of barbecued ribs; a logical approach to interpersonal relations that drives my mother up a wall. Awestruck, I realize that my dad is telling me the truth -- he really does love me, and really does think that I'm wonderful. Whatever life holds in store for me, it holds no greater gift than that.

Fathers must surely have no idea the weighty consequence of their every word and action upon their daughters' future well-being. If they knew, I believe they would unanimously refuse the job as too risky, the burden as too heavy. Sometimes they are very deliberate and purposeful about it, and some days they are just living their lives and bumping into you in the hallway. But every day, in every way, fathers are telling their young daughters who they are in the world, how they rank, and what they deserve. These lessons take root so deeply that they are unavailable for future modification, even to the grown woman herself.

When a father leaves a young daughter behind, he creates a crevasse of the heart that she will never be able to fill, and dooms her to a life of trying. When a father treats his daughter as less capable or less important than his sons, he launches executable code for a life of doubt and dependency. When a father, such as my own, tells his daughter she is special, smart, one-of-a-kind, female when it counts and male when it's called for, he is taking the best that one human being has to offer another and secreting it away for her in a trust fund she will never bankrupt.

This is what my father did for me. He did it in thousands of ways. He took me to the rodeo, took me bowling, took me to the hardware store. He took the time to teach me something even when he knew I wouldn't retain it. He let me squish in next to him in his big recliner to watch TV. He told me when I got out of line. He told me I was beautiful and told me I was strong in equal measure. And to this day, when he sees me, his face lights up in a way that any female of any age could tell you was not faked in the least.

My father gave all that he had to the business of being a father. That doesn't mean that he never grumped or complained or was too tired to do something. It means that he was there - is there - and has always made sure that I know it.

I can pick a fight with the whole world, get backed into a corner, and remain unrepentant. When I look behind me, there's this World Trade Center of a man who has my back, ready to step in if I need him. He reminds me that I'm made of steel; tells me I'm worth more than every gem on earth. If they don't understand that, he says, then to hell with them.

I borrow some of his strength for a while, repaired by a visit with wisdom and experience. There's little I go through that he hasn't been through and survived. He's not just willing, but anxious to share it with me. He watches over me for as long as he can, worrying over the air in my tires and how much money is in my wallet, right up until I back out of the driveway or get on the plane.

Emboldened, I fade out of sight again for a while. When I come back - and I always do - he's there waiting, great arms outstretched. He will do this again and again and again and again for me, because I am his daughter, and I belong to him forever.

And -- thank you God -- he is my father.

--------------------------

"Dad!" I screeched. "That's it! From now on, no one is driving this car but me!"

It was more than 30 years into my life on this planet, and I had just succeeded in uttering the bitchiest, brattiest thing I had ever said.

This little disturbance, caused by my father's inability to find the emergency brake release on my new car, is an unfortunate pattern between me and my father. He does something I deem inappropriate or inadequate, and before I know it I am speaking to him in a tone I would not dare use with anyone else on this planet, my mother included.

There was the time my parents and I took an unguided rafting trip down the Tuckaseegee River in western North Carolina. My father is 6'4" and outweighs me by 80-100 pounds, depending on how either of us are doing on our diets. In a raft, this translates to his paddle stroke determining our direction down the river, no matter who is seated in the rear steering position, like me.

No matter how lightly he paddled, he still inadvertently overrode my every steerage from the back of the boat. My saintly mother tried to mediate the bickering from her nonpaddling position in the middle, but it finally got so insane that we had to heave to shore to sort out the command structure.

"This is supposed to be fun!!" I huffed in my father's general direction.

Yes, we fuss, my father and I. Just a few weeks ago we fussed over what percentage of the load should reside in the front half of a U-Haul trailer, and whether electrical or duct tape would be more suitable for corralling said trailer's cables and wires. I fussed at him for lifting heavier objects than I deemed he should, and fussed about his fussing over me working too hard at our yard sale.

"I'm not used to having to check in with people before I do something!" I whined.

"That's the price you pay for being loved," my father replied.

Men, be forewarned that if you raise your daughters as you should, this is what you have to look forward to. They will not acquiesce; they will not take your word for it. They will argue with you, tell you they know things you don't, and test their strength against yours - again and again and again - until you feel that you must have done something wrong to make your daughter think so little of you and hold you in such low esteem. But stop right there, because what you're thinking is wrong.

There's something you should know about your daughter, your sweet little girl, who became a woman in what seemed like a nanosecond. She thinks the world of you. She still needs your approval. She makes a mental note of it every time a theory of hers agrees with one of yours. Don't be fooled by the woman-of-the-world facade. It is only because you did such a good job convincing her that you love her unconditionally that she feels safe, here with you, to test the resolve that she needs back out there in the world.

And when she makes you feel bad, you should know that it makes her feel worse.

It's like that old line you used to use: "this hurts me more than it hurts you." You were right.

My father is now a grandfather. For him and my mother, it is a time of rediscovery, boundless love, and a cherished new role in young lives. They would gladly step off a cliff if they thought it would make a better life for my niece and nephews. My parents, after many years off for good behavior, are back to telling jokes at the dinner table, singing silly songs, dressing up in Halloween costumes, and channeling every bit of energy and attention they have to give to these wondrous creatures who bring such life and love into their home.

I watch the antics of my new and different parents with admiration, puzzlement, and a heartfelt twinge of jealousy. My father now makes going to the store an adventure in fun for a whole new generation of my family. He has a special kinship with them, based on fishing trips and birthday parties that I miss out on.

But most of all, I realize that I am robbing my as-yet nonexistent children of precious minutes with their grandfather and grandmother. I know that one day I will feel that regret as a deep crevasse in my heart. In the meantime, there is nothing to do but share in the joy that four more precious children are experiencing the unconditional love that I enjoy. And even better, that my parents have more adoration and love flowing back to them.

The more people I can recruit in this world to communicate to my parents just how wonderful they are and how worthy, the closer I get to paying it forward.

Happy Birthday, Dad. Your daughter loves you more than she will ever be able to tell you.

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