He’s in the hospital, lying still. He looks at me with tired eyes, and I feel helpless. It’s Father’s Day. I’ve brought him a card and some English toffee, his favorite. But he can’t thank me or even yell at me; and I have no words.
When I think about my relationship with my father over the last two decades, I don’t think about what happened or what was said between us as much as what didn’t happen, what wasn’t said. I remember Dad as the cloud over the dinner table. We couldn’t talk or joke, and we were never allowed to argue, especially about our friends or teachers, the things that were important to us.
“Shut up and eat,” he’d say. His voice had that rough, crackly sound that develops from years of smoking menthol cigarettes and drinking whiskey. Or maybe he’d give us one of his frowns; his blue eyes cut through laughter like a laser beam. He would raise his eyebrows into this arched look of incredible disbelief that challenged us: Go ahead, say something else.
We wouldn’t dare. There would be silence, except for the chink of silverware on the plate and the inside sound of trying to swallow food that sticks in your throat. It never occurred to me that Dad didn’t know what we needed from him, other than room and board, which he provided with complaint. Or that we could have told him what we needed. I’m not talking about a new pair of sneakers. We asked for that when we had to, when Mom put us up to it.
“Go ask your father,” she’d say, and I’d cringe.
“Why don’t you ask him?” I’d plead. He was grouchy, and I was afraid of him.
“You’re the one who wants the sneakers.” She went back to stirring something on the stove, oblivious to how scared I felt. I did it because I wanted those sneakers. But it wasn’t easy. I tiptoed into the living room where he sat perched in his chair, poring over the obituaries.
“What!” His voice had that tone, authoritative and spiky at the edges. It wasn’t the friendly voice he used for dogs or the gas station attendants, whom he called pal. It was the tone he used for us. It always pushed me back, kept me away from him. I don’t think he realized how mean it sounded.
I lifted my foot, showing him the hole at the bottom of my sneaker. “Mom said to tell you I need a new pair of sneakers.” My voice cracked. I waited, licking my lips.
“Jesus Christ! What does she think—I’m made of money? Every time I turn around, it’s something else.” He peered at me over the rim of his glasses, his eyes narrowing. “Didn’t you just get those sneakers?”
An answer wasn’t expected so I stood there, pressing the toe of my sneaker into the carpet, while his yelling reached a crescendo of frustration. Finally, he crushed the pages of the paper together, reached into his pocket, and shoved a twenty at me. I clutched the bill to my chest. Letting the air out of my lungs in a loud sigh, I waved the bill at my mother. She shrugged and continued cooking, while I considered the color of my new sneakers.
I never asked Dad for rides though. My brother would, and he’d always get them. “He just yells and then he drives you where you want to go,” he’d say. But I couldn’t handle the yelling, the hurtful tone. I walked everywhere or got rides from the parents of my friends.
I remember going to a dance with my father when I was twelve. My mother set it up through the Girl Scouts. It was a father-daughter square dance. She bought me a beautiful Polly Flinders dress with smocking along the top and a skirt that flared around me when I twirled. I wore a purple ribbon in my hair and shiny patent-leather shoes with buckles. I was very nervous.
When the caller went through the steps, I listened with my head bent, my lips repeating the calls silently. Please God, I prayed, help me not to make a mistake. My father and I danced very seriously. He was intent, holding my hands too tightly and pinching my fingers as we promenaded. I felt as if I were dancing in a minefield. One wrong step and the world would blow up. I guess I was afraid of displeasing him or that he might yell at me in front of everyone. But Dad didn’t yell at me once during the whole dance. He made a few impatient faces though, if I misstepped or he did.
Years later, when I was a freshman in high school, my Dad came to one of my first track meets. I was running the mile, and we were up against a hated rival team—rich kids with fancy uniforms and attitudes. I ran that race to win, like most things I did, like I had been taught to do. But I didn’t know their miler was great, a state champion. And I didn’t know about pacing myself.
At first, I did fine. In fact, I could see the wispy blond hairs around her neck as I followed her down the track for two laps. Soon, though, the pounding of our sneakers on the pavement began to throb in my heart and then my ears as I struggled for air. Soon I was hunched over, clutching my side, as a rod pierced between my ribs. I could hear people making sympathetic sounds, and then I couldn’t run anymore. I could barely walk. I sobbed as my coach gave me a comforting arm and walked me off the track. I hadn’t finished the race. How would I face my team the next day? It was the most humiliating moment of my life.
“Didn’t they even teach you how to pace yourself?” Dad asked scornfully on the ride home. “You don’t just go running off for chrissakes. You set a pace for yourself, stick to it. And you save a kick for the end.” I shrugged. By that time, I had learned to tune him out.
Later, when I earned the Most Improved Student Award for track, Dad attended the ceremony and took a picture of me holding the running-girl trophy. I realize now that he must have cared. Maybe he was even a little proud of me for sticking with it and doing my best. But he never said he cared or that he was proud of me. He never said anything nice to me, until we both got older. By then, he was forced to face his own mortality, and I had almost learned how to ask for what I needed.
It started with a conversation on the telephone. He hadn’t called to talk to me. He never called to chat. What did we have to say to each other? My mother and sister were visiting at the time; he called long distance to talk to her.
“Hello, let me talk to your mother,” he said in his loud, barking way. I gestured for my mother to come answer the phone. When she reached me, she held out her hand, but suddenly instead of giving her the phone, I spoke.
“I love you, Dad,” I told him for the first time in my life. His throat problems were just starting, and I was worried about his failing health. Still it was a bold remark, and I hadn’t known I was going to say it. I don’t think I had ever told him that I loved him.
He was silent.
My mother looked at me, her eyes questioning, confused…
“I love you,” I repeated, forcing the words a second time. Respond to this, I challenged him in my mind. The words hung strangely between us.
“Yeah,” he said gruffly, after an awkward silence. “Let me talk to your mother.” It was his standard tone, but without the sharp anger. I passed the phone to my puzzled mother.
Suddenly, as an adult, I knew what I wanted from him. I wanted him to tell me he cared, to admit what had always been so difficult for him to show-that I was lovable, that he loved me.
I complained to my mother: “Daddy never told me he loved me.” My older sister agreed. “He never said it to me either.” We whined at her, pitying ourselves. Maybe it should have been too late to matter, but for me it wasn’t. Suddenly it mattered a great deal.
“He never told any of you. He never even told me,” my mother said with a laugh that had no humor in it. “It’s not his way.”
Two days after my mother returned home, the phone rang.
“Hello!” he bellowed. “Know who this is?”
“Dad, hi.” I felt a twisting pinch in my gut. Was Mom okay?
“Your mother tells me you think I don’t love you. Well, I do.” He shouted it at me. I pulled the phone away from my ear, looked at it. Was this really happening? I put the phone back and listened.
“More than you do,” he said in that gruff tone, but now there was a hint of mischief in it.
“You never told me.” My voice sounded small, like it always did when I talked to him. I felt a need to explain myself, but it was too awkward. I listened to the silence.
“Well, I’m telling you now,” he barked. “And don’t you forget it!”
“I won’t Dad. I won’t forget.” I listened to the dial tone long after he hung up.
I look at him now, as pale as the sheets around him. His larynx is shot. He can barely speak, never mind yell at me anymore. But he’s told me what I needed to hear.
Suddenly the words come to mind. The words I want to tell him. Words I wish I could have told him so many years ago. I wish I could have said, “Dad that tone hurts me. It feels hateful, like you don’t love me, like you don’t think I’m good or special.”
I wish I could have said that because now I know, he would have listened.