Life and Letters
Writing has become an unexpected and important part of my life. Certainly, it’s no secret that writing is one of those rarely perfect forms of communication in which each word can be carefully selected to reflect the color of emotions, respond eloquently and passionately to a hurt, and to examine thought processes that run like the ticker tape in Time Square only hidden within the recesses of the mind, but I never really expected the written word to contain the embrace of a father I hadn’t really known. I can count the number of times my father has embraced me physically on one hand. He was not an affectionate man. He was a hard-edged Georgia boy who never really escaped the hurts of his own past. It wasn’t until he moved to a small fishing town after his retirement that his true happy-go-lucky personality began to emerge beneath the brazen surface of a cynical soul. For most of my life, I believed my father didn’t really respect my choices in life, didn’t really care to be around me, and didn’t even like me much. How wrong I was. Although we disagreed on many things; politics, religion, respectful conduct, the obligation of family, I began to find common ground in forgiveness. Long ago, I made a decision to forgive him for intended and unintended hurts. The hate I harbored in my youth wore away more of who I wanted to be than any hurt ever could. I began to loose myself in it. The decision was instant. Sitting in my car one day, I realized though a not-so-subtle nudge, that I was destroying my life. I thought my father was the victimizer, but in reality I was keeping my own self a prisoner of disappointment in a man I called father. After all, he was just a man, not a super-hero, not a perfect soul, not even a man that planned out his life and expected me to be; just a man, a lost soul, a broken soul, struggling against his own sea of grief and disappointment which he too refused to release. When my father began to show the effects of chemotherapy after an aggressive cancer attacked his otherwise healthy body, I began to see the hard shell he wore surrender to the fear of succumbing to the illness. The treatments ravished his body and my dad went from a healthy 165 pounds to an emaciated 110 pounds. Visiting him in the hospital was difficult. I had to read the chart attached to his bed as he slept to make sure it was him that lay there, cheeks and eyes sunken in with a body so small, I imagined I could scoop him up out of the bed and take him out of the hospital. For the first time in a long time, I began to reflect on who my dad had been before the illness. Tough comes to mind. Rigid is not far behind. Then I remembered seeing a movie with Clint Eastwood, “Grand Torino”, in which an old man about my father’s age, a bit racist and filled with his own stubborn ideology begins to soften as his neighbors chipped away at his tough exterior. He reminded me so much of my dad and I began to realize his toughness was a front. He was from a generation in which men were never permitted to show weakness or admit fear. Instead, fear and weakness were replaced with distance. This distance would help blur the emotions that were not to be. After all, men were John Wayne, and Dirty Harry then. To be human and frail was for cowards. I remember thinking how wrong I’d gotten my dad. I never knew how wrong until I walked through his tiny mobile home after his death. I had not known him to be sentimental and was surprised to see his wood stove topped with flowery cards from the many well-wishers congratulating him on the doctor’s report that showed he was cancer free. My brother remarked how proud he was of all of them. Just one week after the doctor’s report, my father had a massive heart-attack all alone in that little place. Accustomed to pain and toughness he waited a bit too long to call for help. We encountered many little trinkets that day that revealed his true sentimental nature; pictures of family long gone, saved school projects from my brothers, and letters to and from past close friends. Just as I had begun to wonder where I was in that little place, my sister-in-law opened the box next to my father’s Air force discharge papers. In that small metal box lay his last and best embrace. The letter read, “I love you…I’m proud of you….I’m sorry” among many other beautiful and wonderful things. It was obvious he had planned to send it. I knew this because he had two hand-written copies in his familiar script. One had phrases crossed out and edited for spelling. As I sat at the edge of his bed, holding the letters in my hand a crushing realization washed over me; we were the same. You see, I had a letter for my dad too. I had been editing for just the right words and phrases. My dad never saw that letter that read, “I love you…I’m proud of you…I’m sorry”. Let me only say this to all the daughters and sons out there. Dads are not superhero’s. They are men. Some are broken and carry their brokenness into their fatherhood. For this there is regret. However, should you let unforgiveness become a thief, it will gladly rob you of seeing your father in his true and authentic form. Be careful as you might swear you are nothing like him and find out you are more like him than you ever knew.

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