Hot summer evening in Texas.
I’m about nine years old, I think, outside in the front yard with Mom and Dad. They’re probably finishing up yard work, and I’m just playing, like nine-year-old boys do on summer evenings.
Dad loved working in the yard. Loved it. He took great pride in having a terrific-looking landscape, and he busted his butt for hours to achieve that goal.
This great love for yard work was a gene that definitely did not duplicate to any of his sons, I assure you. Just sayin’.
Anyway, our dog, a little toy fox terrier, is out there with us. Not a good thing; he’s supposed to be in the backyard with the gate shut, or else, he’s got the green light to take off down the street, with me in hot pursuit. So far, fortunately, he’s chosen to just stay close to us in the yard, so Dad tells me to grab him (the dog, not Dad) and return him to the backyard and close the gate. (which, by the way, yours truly probably left open, causing this situation in the first place. oh, well…)
One problem: Just as Dad’s telling me this, the dog decides he has to pee.
So I stand there and wait for him to finish. Rude to interrupt him, don’t you know; I certainly wouldn’t want anybody grabbing me when I’m right in the middle of taking a leak. Besides, some of it may get on me. Ewww.
Well, you know what comes next. Soon as he finishes, he takes off running, and my chance to just grab him is lost. Great. Now I gotta chase him again.
That’s when I hear Those Words. The words that have stayed with me from that day to this:
Why are you such an idiot??
Ah, fathers and sons. A historically complicated relationship.
My father was a good man. He truly was.
He worked hard all his life to provide for his family. He was determined his sons would all get a college education, something he never got; he knew a degree would open a lot more doors of opportunity for us. He had a big heart for people (and animals), and would help anyone in need as much as he could. His faith was a huge part of his life; he loved God and did his best to be a loyal follower.
He also had a wonderful, wicked sense of humor, always making wisecracks and playing pranks. He couldn’t help being the naughty boy. He was the court jester, providing those around him with a good laugh.
He took me to ball games. He took me fishing and swimming at the lake. He played catch with me. He played board games with me. He patiently listened as I recited TV commercials and comedy routines I had memorized. And he laughed at the punchlines.
He told me he loved me. Often.
I feel genuinely sorry for all the people who had fathers who beat them, or molested them, or abandoned them, or neglected them, or always came home drunk, or in any other way put their families through complete hell. I know I’m one of the fortunate ones; I was raised in a stable, loving family environment, for which I’m so glad. And my father was one of the main reasons for that.
I loved him. I looked up to him. I wanted to be just like him. He was perfect in my eyes. So, what happens when such a person looks you in the eye and calls you an idiot?
When you’re nine years old, it totally crushes you.
I went into the house and fell on my bed, crying. I was certain I had just failed him beyond measure. I hated myself for being such an idiot.
Unfortunately, as I grew, it was hard to shake that feeling. See, Dad had this…tone sometimes when he talked to you. It was very condescending. You could ask him a question, and he would answer in a way that made you sorry you asked. You would end up believing he thought you really are an idiot, whether he actually said it or not.
So I resolutely held on to the belief that he thought his youngest son was the dummy of the family.
And no amount of “I love you”‘s and “I’m proud of you”‘s could totally wipe that away. I still could seldom times look at him without imagining him looking back at me and wondering how he could have been stuck with such a stupid son.
If he ever told me he thought I was smart, I don’t remember. Selective memory, I guess; it wouldn’t have fit my perception of what he actually thought of me.
And, see, I know he didn’t mean what he said that day; he was angry, and don’t we all know, we say things in anger we never really meant to say.
But that doesn’t make it hurt any less to hear.
Now, please understand, this isn’t a Dad-bashing. I really loved the man, and am forever grateful to him for all he did for me. I don’t hate him. I don’t resent him. I’m not blaming any failures or missteps in my life on him; I own all that. I’m not wallowing in self-pity over a “troubled childhood”.
I just wish he’d never said Those Words. Or, at least, had apologized for saying them.
So this is for all you dads out there, about to enjoy Your Day. Even though I’m not a father myself, I had one once, and I’m telling you…
Please, please choose your words carefully when you talk to your children, even in anger. Especially, in anger. If you say something you don’t mean, apologize, and reassure your child you love him or her. Those Words have a much greater impact on a child than you can ever imagine.
Oh, and all you sons (and daughters) out there: show some love to your dad this weekend, and the rest of the time, too.
Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad. Sixteen years after your passing, I still miss you.
And I still love you. Like always.