Hang out in the blogosphere long enough, and it might seem like everyone nowadays is going the route of what the title of this post suggest—particularly when it comes to dads.
I recently read various blogs honoring dads publicly that ranged from gut busters (“Movie Dads Who My Dad Could Beat Up” and “My Dad Has No Rhythm, Yet Is Master Of The Dance”), to sentimental (“Ten Ways to Say ‘Thank you, Dad’”), to sad reflections (“The words of my Father”).
I fell into one or more of those categories last year, when I did the same (“Art of the Father”) after another blogger asked me to contribute to an online discussion on fatherhood.
(Since I’m not a father, I wrote about my dad—a man who emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago to the U.S., who brought his childhood sweetheart (they grew up three houses apart) here and married her shortly before buying his first house. He did all these things, including becoming a father, before he was 28. At 30, I just got engaged. So you see why I stopped competing with him a long time ago.)
At the time I wrote the essay, I had no idea of its significance beyond fulfilling a request from a friend and putting a smile on both my mom and fiancée’s faces.
To understand why I didn’t show the ol’ man the essay on Father’s Day is to know a man who has automated responses to any gesture of kindness towards him. These responses include “Not bad” and “That sounds (or looks—depending on the task and his choice of variation) like something I would’ve said (or done)”.
Other times, he’d say what was wrong with the gesture (or what he would’ve done differently) and sometimes he wouldn’t acknowledge the act right there. (I’d have to hear about his reaction from my mom way after the fact.)
So you can imagine the smile of a boy going slack and his shoulders slumping—after throwing himself completely into the task of pleasing his father, hoping the ol’ man’ll get emotional instead of the straight-faced, “Not bad.”
In retrospect, those automated responses and his occasional harsh words that prompted arguments between him and others were his armor. Only my mother, grandmother and a select few of his 10 siblings saw his vulnerabilities—what I’d later notice in his transformation from the gregarious and lively storyteller to the awkwardly silent man when certain topics of discussion went over his head.
I’d see his vulnerabilities later when my aunt and uncle (both of whom were his older siblings/best friends) passed away—one from cancer and the other from medical malpractice. Try as he might, he couldn’t keep me from catching a glimpse of what he might’ve been like as a boy when he watched his mother suffer from Alzheimer’s, shortly before she passed away.
As a man graceful enough on his feet to raise the two-step to the level of ballroom dancing, it took him swallowing his pride when he asked my mom to teach him the Electric Slide. (Dad got tired of watching everyone else do it at weddings.)
Some of his vulnerabilities, despite the cool demeanor he used to veil them, were painfully obvious. The man I once believed could not only beat up “movie dads”, but any dad for that matter, needed me to read him things he couldn’t see with his CVS “reading” glasses.
There were times he needed me to type things for him—things he would’ve otherwise labored over by two-finger typing. (I once saw the smile slide off his face when, joking about the spectacle of his 6-foot-1 and medium built frame typing, I said he looked like Tyrannosaurus Rex idly clacking away at a keyboard.)
Understanding how he tried to hide his vulnerabilities, I didn’t show him the essay because I didn’t want a lecture on what was wrong with it or what he would’ve done differently. And he wouldn’t have seen it if what my mom told me hadn’t left me in disbelief.
At the time of our conversation, I was looking for full-time work, after being laid off as a staff writer for a black newspaper in Baltimore. In between working a few art gigs and applying to job postings, I worked for my dad, who’s a self-employed master electrician/electrical contractor.
Over the phone, I told my mom about an opportunity to teach creative writing. After telling me how happy she was, I told her how I thought dad looked down on what I did as a writer. To that she said, “You know your father thought you looked down on what he does for a living.” I almost got emotional when mom told me, “He’s always been proud of you.”
That’s when I decided it was time to show him. That night, I emailed him the essay with a short note. He called right away and, as usual, talked about everything but the essay. And try as he might have, he couldn’t veil the man under the armor, of whom I got another glimpse when his voice got shaky.