A Dad’s Impact

Growing up, I was always my daddy’s little girl. I think that’s probably why I’m so sensitive to anything he’s ever said or done that’s hurt me. These past few years, our relationship has been distant, despite me seeing him pretty regularly. I have a discomfort being with him these days because I find that he says hurtful comments that I take to heart or, more prevalently, I’m not confident that I’ll be able to react appropriately or helpfully should anything happen with him medically.

For whatever reason, I was thinking about my best friend today. When she was 17, she was pursued by her 37-year-old youth pastor. With her father’s blessing, they began to date. Around this time, my friend would show up at my house unannounced frequently, just to watch television with me and she would often fall asleep. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that this man had pressured her into having sex against her will. He would stalk her, showing up wherever she was (often with me), and when she tried to break up with him, he put a gun to his head and threatened to kill himself. She would come to my house because she knew that, even if he didn’t know the situation, my dad would protect her. She knew, like many of my friends, that she was safe with my dad, when she didn’t even feel safe with her own, who had approved of and often spoke to her boyfriend.

It reminded me, too, of the time that a girl threatened to kill me for calling her boyfriend. How, as I would find out later from my mom, my dad took the whole day off of work and parked down the street just in case this girl showed up to make good on her threat. I was in the house, alone, completely ignorant that anything was even happening.

All of my friends called my parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad’. A particular friend grew up with us and was always with my family because her father was out of the picture and her mother had some issues. I remember how afraid she was to come out to my parents. She cried when she told them she was a lesbian and said she understood if that meant that she wasn’t welcome anymore. I remember my dad telling her that nothing had changed. She was still exactly who she had always been and that she was and would always be welcome in our home and with our family. Always.

Which, of course, made me think of the time that my friend came out to his parents and they kicked him out of his home. He came to my house crying and said that his sister told him she never wanted to see him again and that he would never meet his unborn nephew. My dad told him he was always welcome in our home and gave him all kinds of loving words of encouragement. They had the longest, most intimate conversation – the kind he should have been able to have with his own father – and I know my friend felt comforted by that.

I started to think of all the many times in my life that a friend in need reached out to my dad instead of their own. Then I began to think of even more times when my dad showed great compassion. Like the time he was driving from Ohio to Michigan and picked up a hitch-hiker. He spent three hours listening to the man’s story and then he bought him a hot meal at a restaurant, where they continued to talk, before he got him a hotel room so that he’d have somewhere to sleep that night.

I thought of all the times in my life when my dad was not only compassionate but when he encouraged and inspired compassion in me. There was one year when myself and my sisters, having heard my dad telling my mom about a family who had nothing, volunteered to donate all of our Christmas gifts and take all of our Christmas dinner over to someone else’s home on Christmas day. I’ll never forget unloading the van and carrying in all of our things to kids we’d never met before. Or how the mom stood there and cried and cried and cried.

Even now, whenever I give to the homeless or donate to the poor – whenever I feel moved by compassion to give what little I have to someone who has even less – I see my father in those moments. From him, I learned not only compassion, but grace and mercy and forgiveness. And all of this, with a song. For my dad has always had a song on his lips. He has always been known at work or anywhere else as someone who is joyful. Someone who is laughing, singing, and encouraging.

It’s good for me to look back and remember these things, though, because time has not been kind. It started with my dad being let go from his job of fifteen years because he kept missing work due to illness. Then, he was let go from another job because he passed out behind the wheel of a company car. Twice. His body began to fail him regularly. He fell in a parking lot and couldn’t get up. He has no memory of driving somewhere, but woke up having crashed into a storefront. He’s in constant, debilitating pain. He’s afraid to leave the house because he has no confidence in his body.

I know he’s so frustrated. I know that he feels like his life is a failure, because he can’t provide and he can’t even drive and he has no independence. He’s mad at his body. He’s mad at the many specialists who can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong with him. He’s discouraged and anxious and depressed. And there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing that anyone can do. He’s not even old, but his body has let him down.

I wish I knew how to contact all the people whose lives he’s touched over the years, because I know there are many. I wish that he could be reminded of his impact and made to feel that he’s not just some burden, but someone who has spent his life in service of others. And I wish, above anything else, that I wasn’t a disappointment to him. That I could make him proud. That I could do something worthwhile to reflect well on him.

I still have a birthday card my dad wrote to me a few years ago, where he said, “Recently, I have been experiencing a great deal of anxiety. I would describe what it feels like but I think you already know. It’s something I have never experienced before. Finally, I said, God what is this? Why am I experiencing this? I cannot live like this! And I think it’s so that I can know what you experience. I want to apologize for not being more empathetic.” Even in the midst of his own anxiety, he thought of me? He thought of how he could have been more empathetic toward me in my anxiety?

I would give anything to see my dad healed. I would gladly take on all the suffering myself in his place. But here’s the thing: I can’t communicate any of this to him. For whatever childish reason, I’m incapable of talking to my dad. And I’m afraid that time is running out for me to ever tell him how much he matters and how good he is.

There’s no profound conclusion here. I just needed to get all of this off of my chest somewhere.

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