For the first time that I can remember since he died three years ago, I dreamed of my father last night. I know I've had dreams of his last moments, when the pain of cancer left him unable to walk or speak. But it's been forever since I dreamed of my father-- the man as he was before the diagnosis: upright, healthy and as sure of himself as any person alive... especially when it came to what his children should do. It never mattered that we were adults: he always thought he knew best. I guess your children are your children, it doesn't matter how old they get. It's an attitude that, the older my own girls get, I understand better.
In my dream, my father was walking through my house, giving me unsolicited advice, much as he would do when he was living. He suggested paint colors for the living room. He made pronouncements about the state of our finances (in the military he was finance officer, who managed large budgets for several of the Army's largest agencies) and, he gave me a lecture about my health... which is good, but I've been ignoring a few little things. In my dream, I was telling Dad about that and he didn't think that was such a good idea. I guess he would know. He ignored little things that, had they been investigated, might have alerted us to the cancer before it was too late.
It's weird that after years of silence, Dad should step into my dreams, now on the eve of Father's Day. While I know he loved me and I loved him, ours was a complicated relationship. We saw the world through very different lenses and valued very different currencies. Because of that, it was often difficult for us to communicate.
But neither of us ever stopped trying. He never turned his back on me, he or any of my three siblings. He supported me in the best ways he knew how, and though he might have been critical of some of my choices, he certainly wouldn't let any outsider make those same comments. He was my father and he understood that job meant protect, provide and guide. It's hard and often thankless job-- a lifetime sentence in some ways. He accepted it willingly, warts and all, just as he committed himself fully to his marriage to my mother. They were married for 46 years.
Contrast this with the 70% of African American children who are born out of wedlock. Many of these kids grow up without a father in the home, without a father in their lives. It's a void I cannot imagine.
It was my father who taught me to swim, who pushed me academically, who provided discipline, who modelled a work ethic. My father interviewed my dates and showed me how a real man treats his wife. My father insisted we clean our rooms, handed out chores, introduced the concept of financial stewardship. He modelled physical fitness and moderation in food and drink. The military gave him the chance to "see the world": he encouraged his children to see it. The military expanded his horizons beyond what he might have known if he'd lived his whole life in central Virginia where he was born. So from a young age, his children's horizons were expanded-- whether we wanted them to be or not. Going to symphonies, operas, taking piano lessons, playing sports-- these weren't options, they were orders.
Sometimes, my siblings and I groused... but now we're immensely grateful. Much of what I am now, I owe to him. My lawn looks good because he made us do yard work every Saturday and I learned how to cut grass, trim hedges and lay down mulch. Kevin says I can put together anything. Not true, but what I know about assembly I learned from Dad. When I hung the chandelier in our dining room and painted the kitchen, I was channelling lessons from Dad. Those were the things he loved. Even when he was sick, I could excite him with a conversation about laying tile, whitening grout, building a deck or constructing a swingset. That I know anything about those kinds of projects is a debt I owe to him.
None of us are perfect parents-- no more than any of us are perfect people. Fatherhood, like any job done well forces a man to confront not just his strengths, but also his limitations. The good ones hang in, even when the going gets tough. They say the unpopular things, do the dirty jobs, allow themselves to be hated and feared when that's the course that is required. They strive for an ideal of parenthood: for goodness and wisdom and fairness and steadfastness. Maybe they don't always succeed, but it's the trying that matters. The trying and the "teaching"-- not just how to hammer a nail or cast a line-- the teaching of what manhood means. It's an example all children need, regardless of gender.
Good fathers stand with their kids. They don't back away when the money gets tight, or when they don't know what to do-- and they certainly don't disappear because they'd rather be doing something else. Even when marriages or relationships between adults end, good fathers bend over backwards to remain engaged and involved in their childrens' lives--not just financially, but in every way.
Far too many black kids--far too kids, of all races-- don't know what it means to have a father stand with and for them every single day. It's an unimaginable loss... as great as the loss of good father, like mine. It explains too many things about what's wrong in our society. Rather than pointing fingers of blame, it really is time to as the saying goes "man up". Got kids? Parent them. No excuses. If you don't know how, find out. There are always resources available to those who seek them. Where there's a will, there's a way. I know that sounds like a platitude, but there's truth in it.
Happy Father's Day, Dad. I think that shade of blue would really pop in the living room, my roses do need a trellis and you're right, it's better to be safe than sorry. I'll make a doctor's appointment, thanks. And thanks for being a great Dad.