Saturday, June 19, 2010

Daddy's girl

I'm Daddy's girl.

I'm a reader because of my dad, who read endlessly. I'm a critical thinker and a skeptic - never an easy believer - because of my dad, who was a chronic questioner. I'm a writer who's never satisfied with my writing because of my dad, who wrote for decades, never truly mastered the craft and always longed to. My father's DNA is twined tightly in my genes.

He taught English and literature most of his adult life - high school and then community college. He roped in dozens of former non-readers with "cool" classes based on works of science fiction or Tolkien's Ring Trilogy. He made awful puns and taught me the art of wordplay. He joined my friends and me in easy conversation when we came skulking through the door in the wee hours of the morning as he was grading papers at the kitchen table. We all called him "Pa" and sought the refuge of his high regard at a time when most adults didn't seem to hold us in any regard at all.

He gardened and he jogged and he made comments about not wanting to get old and infirm, but he was healthy as a horse so who cared, and then he dropped dead without warning at age 63 from a massive heart attack, two days before I was supposed to get married. I was 22.

And devastated by the swiftness of his going. We'd just mended - the night before he died - a falling-out we'd been having since he'd left my mother and moved into his own apartment. He'd always been the guy in the white hat for me, but lately he seemed to be firmly in the Bad Guy category. Though he wasn't abusive in the commonly-understood sense, his actions were destructive to the integrity of his marriage and family. The more I learned about how he'd been living life with my mother, the more harshly I judged him. Until I realized that he'd supported me without judgment through some truly awful adolescent traumas, and - at the very least - I owed that same compassion to him. So I told him that, and we cried over the phone, and I said I'd see him the next day, and by the time I saw him, he was dead.

It's been a long journey since that awful day. Over the thirty-plus years since my father's death I've continued to learn what a flawed man he was: how his drive to prove himself in every way and to be adored by everyone tore at the heart of our family. And I've had to keep forgiving him, keep releasing judgment, keep realizing that I never knew the whole story of what haunted him. But I DO know that most of us are haunted by something or other, that we're all flawed, and that we could all use a bit of compassion from just about any source.

Besides, I remember that Papa told me made-up bedtime stories when I was little; I remember that he brought me hot coffee and milk when I was a teenager, trying to get up to go to school after staying up too late the night before; I remember that he always answered my questions about correct grammar and punctuation without ever making me feel stupid for asking - and he always included in his responses examples I could understand. I remember that he took me to church when, as a young teen, I wanted to go, even though he was a staunch nonbeliever and it must have been torture for him to sit through the sermons. I remember that he discussed politics and world affairs and important questions with me as if I were perfectly able to understand "adult talk" - and, as a result, I WAS.

So, joining in the annual ritual that means more when we grasp how sweetly, sadly, grandly HUMAN our dads are, I say: Happy Father's Day, Daddy. I'm glad for who you were. You shaped who I am. And - finally, surprisingly - I'm grateful for that.


Rev. Jon Michael Singh said...

Thank you, Diane. You spoke of things I could have said about my father, who passed away a year ago, as well. As you spoke of your unique story I felt a longing to go deep into the well of memories that hold my father for me - he too was a flawed but brilliant man; he could light church on fire with Spirit and he could retreat in his introversion from the the most basic of fatherly duties.

Shalom. - jack

Rev. Diane Wuesthoff, PassageWays said...

Thank YOU, Jack. Somehow learning about the human frailty of my father, and learning that I could love (and miss) him anyway, makes that love seem keener and deeper than that of the hero-worship of a child for a "godlike" parent. Heroes are cardboard cutouts; humans are messy, many-dimensional creatures who struggle, stumble, fall, and sometimes manage to reach out their hands both to give and receive help, comfort, love. I believe that when we drink deep at the well of those memories you spoke of, our thirst will be quenched by once-muddy water that now runs clear. Peace.