Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Living Reminder

Gina grew up believing her father loved her, but his withdrawn and gruff nature made it such that she reassured herself of that love more often than he did.

The kind of dad who was often in a bad mood after coming home from work, what he wanted to do most was have dinner and then relax watching TV. Gina knew that he worked hard and was tired at the end of the day, but she needed more from him than she was getting. Their relationship was strained even in its best moments.

Yet, there were times when he let a hint of softness show through. He knew the words of one song and occasionally sang to Gina. Although he sang terribly off key, in those moments his voice was music to her ears. That was when he was the dad she dreamed of. She had only that song, but it helped get her through the times when she questioned if he loved her as much as she hoped.

Everything about their relationship changed in a way Gina couldn’t have imagined the evening she came home with her boyfriend and told her parents she was pregnant.

Expecting her dad to go into a rage before kicking her out of the house, she braced herself. Instead, he looked at her and calmly said, “Whether it is a boy or a girl, I expect you to name the baby after me.”

His name was Fuston. When his own father was born his name was supposed to be Houston, but the doctor who delivered him was drunk and wrote Fuston on the birth certificate by mistake. The name stuck and was passed down to Gina’s dad.

Fuston stood, reached for his daughter and hugged her. From that point forward, he became the dad she had always wanted.

Fuston accompanied Gina to all her prenatal appointments, provided her with financial support, and more importantly, abundant emotional support. His loving attention and protection began to fill the void she had endured all the previous years.

When his granddaughter, Ariel, was born and her father was nowhere to be found, it was Fuston who abruptly retired and became Gina’s nanny, cook, and housekeeper, all at once. Her dad, the man who always depressed her as a child, was now the one who lifted her spirits and kept her going. All those years of hurt were healed in a matter of months as he showed her everyday how much he loved her.

When Ariel became a toddler her grandparents needed to relocate to another state. By then Gina saw the need to rely less on her parents, so she stayed behind with her child and set out to make it on her own. In the beginning she didn’t have a telephone, nor cable or antennae for her television. Fuston taped her favorite shows and sent them by mail each week, along with pre-paid calling cards and other goodies in a nearly overstuffed care package.

A few years later Gina’s parents moved again, this time to be nearer to their grandchild. During the move, Fuston injured himself. It was discovered he was in the final stages of cancer, and he died only five months later.

Gina feels her father’s absence everyday, but she also finds comfort in remembering that when she needed him the most, her dad was there for her after all.

Ariel is now fourteen years old. When she is moody or does something that reminds Gina of her dad, she calls her daughter “Fustonette,” just as her dad had asked her to.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dad the Encourager

Thomas was the younger of two children. His father, a physician, died at the age of thirty-three. Only five years old at the time of his father’s death, Thomas was raised by his independent and strong-willed mother who never married again. Thomas became an equally independent and strong-willed young man.

He was also quite smart, bright enough to go to medical or law school, but he decided against those careers because he didn’t want to add the financial burden of graduate school to his mother’s worries. Instead, he completed an undergraduate degree and began working as a salesman for a paper company where he rose quickly through the ranks.

Eventually, Thomas fell in love, got married, and fathered five children. Ann is his oldest child; she was followed by three sisters and a brother.

Thomas was an achiever, and although he did not unreasonably push his children, he clearly expected them to do their best in all things. Laziness was not tolerated. Ann was as bright as her father, so his expectations for her were particularly high. She always seemed to meet or exceed them.

She received straight A’s in numerous honors classes, sang in the school chorus, learned to play the guitar, was a skilled cheerleader and still found time to become an accomplished ballerina. Thomas was delighted with how his daughter made no waste of her intelligence and capabilities.

In the year of her high school graduation, the honors students were brought on stage before an audience of peers and parents to be lauded for their impressive achievements. The principal announced each student’s career aspiration as certificates were presented. When Ann was called he hesitated before announcing her aspiration; she wanted to be a choreographer.

More than any other activity she had mastered, Ann loved to dance. Yet, wanting to please her dad, she pursued a double college major in dance and biology. It gave her options, she explained to her parents. Thomas was pleased with her decision, hoping she might become the doctor he had not.

When Ann first began to plan for graduate school, she knew her father would be disappointed that she had decided to become a university dance professor, not a doctor. Anxious, she asked her best friend to go home with her one weekend to break the news to him. Ann positioned her friend strategically between herself and her father, hoping her friend’s presence would keep her dad from overreacting, and then told him of her plans.

Thomas just sat quietly and stared ahead as he listened.

When Ann finished explaining herself, there was a long silence. She thought she was going to collapse from the tension in the air. Her best friend grabbed her hand, squeezing it tight.

Thomas finally turned his gaze toward his daughter, smiled, and then nodded and said, “Good for you, kid.”

It seems that what he had wanted all along was for Ann to follow her heart. He had chosen not to follow his own ambitions because of his mother’s circumstances, but he wanted his children to freely pursue their dreams. Ann had her dreams, and he wasn’t going to stand in her way.

Ann went on to get a master’s degree in dance at Ohio State University and landed her first full-time university faculty position when she was just twenty-five years old.
Although she was a bit nervous as she began her career, she remembered her father encouraging her to never doubt her abilities. From then on, it never occurred to her that she would not succeed at dancing or teaching. To no one’s surprise, she excelled at both.

Monday, June 14, 2010

In Daddy's Eyes

When Laura was just four years old her mother looked down and saw that one of her blue eyes had started turning toward her nose. Together they marched into a Washington optometrist’s office and a couple of hours later, Laura had her first pair of glasses.

Unfortunately, those glasses were neither sleek nor stylish. Even worse than being about as thick as the bottom of a soda bottle, they were bifocals, too. During the drive home her mom tried to encourage Laura to think positively about wearing glasses, but she dreaded what she was certain her friends would say when they saw her wearing those massive, ugly bifocals.

But more than she feared what her friends might say, Laura worried about how her dad would react to the change of her appearance.

That evening when her dad arrived home from work, Laura shied away and tried to hide her face. Having gotten an advance notice from mom about his daughter’s worry, he sat down at the kitchen table and called her to his side. She nervously stood before him as he took a long look at her face and studied her glasses. Then, with the utmost conviction and authority, he said, “You look beautiful. Go to the mirror and see for yourself; you're a movie star.”

Laura walked sheepishly into the bathroom and gazed into the mirror, repeating to herself her father's words, “you look beautiful.” Turning her head from side to side, looking at her face and glasses from all possible angles, she finally smiled.

“I do look like a movie star,” she told herself.

Any feelings of self-doubt and insecurity were swept away as she repeated her father’s words over and over again. When she turned away from the mirror she was ready to deal with anything that anybody else might have to say about her glasses. Her dad thought she was beautiful in spite of those bifocals and his opinion on that subject was the only one that mattered to her.

As she looks back at photographs from those days Laura sees she looked nothing like a movie star. But in that simple conversation that occurred twenty-eight years ago, her dad did more than reassure her about her appearance. He let her know that in his eyes, she would always be beautiful. He would always see the best in her.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Words Dads Long to Hear

Meagan and I spent a day on campus at the University of Georgia, the college she hopes to attend next year. We toured the classrooms, the stadium, met with a few faculty members, and peeked into a freshman women’s dorm where I had to explain that the stack of menus on the foyer table were not for room service, but from the local restaurants that offered dorm delivery. After our tour we went to lunch at a café near campus and I entertained her with stories about how much fun my two cousins and I once had years ago while attending the same university.

Before long I noticed my staunchly self-reliant, independent teenager sat quietly across the table from me, fiddling with her salad. “Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Will you come visit me?” she asked.

“Of course I will,” I answered, “at least once a week.”

She started to choke on her Arugula. “Ah, that’s a bit much,” she managed to get out.

It didn’t matter. My little girl had just told me she would miss me when she leaves home. We would reach an agreement later about how often I would be “permitted” to come to visit, but for the moment I got something I had been hoping for – reassurance she did not think leaving home would also mean leaving me behind.

Over the previous couple of years as Meagan became more independent she also became less willing to turn to me for what she needed, and even less willing to accept my affection. I tried to convince her I should be permitted to hug and kiss her at will; I was, after all, her father. She didn’t budge and it took me too long to realize my persistence only solidified her conviction. The more I tried to maintain our affection, the less of it I received.

I’m not sure how I finally got the point, but eventually I did and my gestures of affection were replaced with text messages and occasional brief hugs. I preferred more, but I was learning to be happy with what I could get. Any affection was better than none.

By the time of this lunch I had begun to worry about what place I would have in her life after she left home. I thought she was eager to get away from me, a dad who all too often had been accused of hovering far too much.

I had this worry because just days before I had received an email from a twenty-three year old woman who admitted that although she only lives fifteen minutes from her parents’ home, law school consumes nearly all her time and she rarely sees her family. What little free time she does have she spends with her fiancée. She wanted advice on how to help her dad understand that things were changing between them; she loved him still but just couldn’t see him as often as he wished.

It seems her dad was having a difficult time dealing with the realization that within a year his daughter would graduate from law school, begin her career, get married, and live as an adult. I recognized his quandary - he thought he was losing his little girl.

Strangers, we were, that father and I, yet we had something in common – we do not want to go through the pain that seems to follow the distance all daughters eventually place between themselves and their fathers.

If the natural course of growing up ended with daughters boldly cleaving from the protective oversight of their dads, an act which to him feels like having his heart ripped out with a blunt gardening tool, fathers would probably do everything possible and anything supernatural to prevent his child from aging beyond her seventh birthday.

Fortunately, the inevitable quest for independence does not signal the end of the daughter-dad relationship. My friend, Dick, reassured me of this as he shared his memories of his own hurt and frustration as he dealt with Jenna, his determined and independent daughter.

He, like any good dad, tried to discourage his teenaged daughter’s willful behavior, rewarding good conduct and issuing consequences for the bad, including grounding her and denying her favorite privileges. She simply dealt with him in her usual determined way, which more often than not meant she simply ignored him and did what she wanted anyway.

Jenna entered her college years with great enthusiasm, and dad surmised it might be because she was excited about finally breaking away from his parental influence or attempts thereto. With mixed emotions, he drove his daughter off to college, convinced it was the beginning of the end of their tenuous relationship.

As he expected, Jenna’s phone calls home were few and far between. Some days he even wondered if his only role in her life was to pay tuition. Four years went by quickly and then one day he found himself back on campus, this time to watch his daughter graduate. It was then he noticed that something about Jenna seemed to have changed. She appeared happy to see him, and even touched him as they spoke. Afterward, she began calling home, sometimes with specific objectives in mind, other times just to talk about anything that was on her dad’s mind.

One day she asked for his advice as she launched her first professional job search. When she landed that dream job, she called her dad before anyone else to thank him for his advice and encouragement. Soon she began to say other things Dick thought he would never hear, but had held out hope for.

After she moved into her own apartment Jenna started talking with her dad more regularly than she did back when she lived under his roof. Some of her phone calls were just to say hello, others were when she shared news about her efforts to establish her place in the world. She started visiting home every Sunday night for dinner, and in time, she sent her dad an email thanking him for being her “best friend.”

His story gave me hope that one day Meagan, too, would send me such an email. My thoughts returned to the law student who had written me a few days earlier. She had said, “I will always need him, even though he is no longer the only man in my life. Actually, I need him now more than ever.”

“Then go tell him,” I wrote, “I’m sure there’s nothing else he’d rather hear you say.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Place in Her Heart

When four year old Lily first became aware her dad, Warren, left home each morning to go to work and would then be out of sight for hours, she cried if she had not waved good-bye to him. To offer comfort and minimize her tears, mom began waking Lily each morning in time to stand in her bedroom window to wave goodbye as he backed his car out of the garage.

Lily waved to her dad every workday for two years; as long as it took for her to believe he really would be coming home at the end of each day. When he finally did walk through the door, she dropped everything to run to him and jump into his open arms.

Although Warren was relieved when he learned his little girl had outgrown her fear of his disappearance, he couldn’t help but be a little saddened the first morning he looked up and found an empty window at Lily’s bedroom. It was her first step toward that moment he knew was coming but hoped was still many years away, that moment when little girls become teens who then have too little time and affection for their dads.

Steering his car onto the road, Warren remembered the previous morning when Lily had waved goodbye to him. Had he known it was the last time she would send him off in that way, he would have paused and watched her a little longer, looking at the twinkle in her eyes, knowing he was the reason she was up so early in the morning.

As he reassured himself that he still held a special place in his daughter’s heart, he hoped she had not also outgrown the afternoon greeting she offered him upon his return home. That, he was not yet ready to lose. It was his favorite part of the day.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Nothing Stops Dad

Another story from my book Daddy's Little Girl:

When getting off the bus one morning on the way to elementary school, Kim tried to jump across a snow and ice covered curb. Unlike her fellow students who had jumped before her but cleared the icy patch, eight year old Kim didn't leap quite far enough and down she went. One of her hands bent backwards as she landed and the force snapped her wrist.

Although she was in considerable pain, she didn’t shed a tear as she was escorted to the school nurse’s office. She wanted to be a brave girl, as brave as her father always was.

The nurse called Kim’s parents and told them of her accident, learning the stoic child would have to wait until her mother could find someone who could drive them there to pick her up. Both parents were blind and obviously could not drive themselves to the school.

Her father hadn’t yet left the house for work when the nurse’s call came in, and wanting to be with his injured daughter as soon as possible, decided not to wait for a ride. He grabbed his cane and left the house, in his haste leaving his gloves and scarf behind. He walked just over a mile through the Philadelphia winter, all the way to the school.

When her father walked into the nurse’s office, Kim burst into tears, not because the pain of her broken wrist had finally gotten to her, but because she was so touched that her dad had endured the walk to come to her side dressed only in his business suit. In spite of his vision impairment and in the face of rather unfavorable conditions, he had once more come to her rescue.

He took a seat beside her, draped his arm around her shoulders and kissed her on top of her head. “You’re going to be okay,” he said, “Daddy’s here.” He carefully raised his fingers to her checks and brushed away the tears he knew were there.

Kim knew that day nothing could stop her dad; he would come to her rescue whenever she needed him to. And over the following years, he did.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Pot of Gold

From my book Daddy's Little Girl: Stories of the Special Bond between Fathers and Daughters, a great Father's Day gift:

Richard enjoys spending his days of retirement in Florida, sitting in the sun and reflecting on his long life and list of accomplishments. At the top of his list is the knowledge he has raised two wonderful daughters; his little girls have become grown women he can be extremely proud of.

Inevitably, whether when looking at old photographs or daydreaming about memorable events in his life, his thoughts turn to the days of four decades ago, when his little girls looked up at him with dancing eyes and thought he was the source of all things fun and joyful.

One morning as images of Debra, his youngest child, played like a treasured home movie in his imagination, a song suddenly popped into his head. It was a song he had not thought of for many years, and although he could hardly remember the last time he had sung it, every word came to him as if it were just yesterday that he had memorized it. He sat down at his computer and quickly typed an email to his forty-six year old daughter, one that included a few lines from that song:

“You're the end of the rainbow, my pot of gold. You're my little angel, to have and to hold.”

Moments later he received an email; it was from Debra. She was crying at her desk, she told him. She hadn't heard that song in thirty-five years. It had been her favorite bedtime song, one that Richard always sang to her each night while he made sure she was warm and snug beneath her bedcovers.

Even though Debra is a grown woman, hearing her dad say that she is still his little angel touched her heart that morning just as it had each night when she was a young girl. She went on with her day knowing that no matter what challenges they may have faced over the years or how many miles now separated them, her dad still loved her just as much as he always had, if not more. He was still a source of joy.

And Richard, well, he sat back in his chair and shed a few tears of his own, moved by remembrances of his little girl and the knowledge that she still wanted to be his pot of gold.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Love Your Enemies

If circumstances arouse your indignation, do not be led astray. Not one of us is deserving of God’s compassion, yet we are forgiven. Christ on the cross prayed for his enemies; so did Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As God loves you so too should you love your enemies, forgiving them for their transgressions, giving glory to God for his kindness that you now ought to extend to others. He who can obey this precept is a transformed man. Love your enemies.