My Dad Never Told Me He Loved Me. And That’s Perfectly Fine.

Ali Rizvi writes: “I was his first child, and his first son. I wonder if I was also his first experience with real intimacy.”

I’m not really superstitious, but Friday the 13th hit a little harder this year than usual. My dad died April 13th in 2001, a Friday. This year, April 13th fell on a Friday again, the first time in 11 years. I know that doesn’t really mean anything, but it somehow managed to put me in a weird funk for most of that day.

It feels very recent. The guy certainly made an impression. Not because of who he was—a professor with four masters’ degrees and a doctorate, from three different countries, paid for entirely with several well-deserved scholarships—but because of other things that don’t really have to do with any of that.

I still think of him several times every day. Not in a sad or painful way. Not like those sentimental scenes in the movies with dads and their kids laughing together in the sunlight on the playground covered in face paint and pretty ribbons or whatever. And definitely not in a spiritual, religious, or woo-woo kind of way where he’s watching out for me from above. It’s comfortable—simple, vivid flashbacks of boring, everyday stuff, like him sitting on a couch reading the paper and yawning because it’s late. Or walking around the mall looking bored out of his mind while my mom does the shopping. Really useless, mundane, everyday shit like that. Maybe the comfortable meh-ness is what makes the virtuality of his day-to-day existence in my head feel so organic.

And in my dreams, he’s always alive. Any time I have a dream with my family in it, he’s there like he always was. Two of his kids have kids of their own now, grandchildren who he never met. But in the dreams, he’s talking to them, playing with them like he’s been there the whole time. The closest it ever got to feeling like he was dead in one of my dreams is once, when we all thought he was dead, but it turned out he’d just run off to Zanzibar where he was hiding in anonymity with a new wife. And I remember thinking, “Thank God he’s okay.” And then I woke up and he was still dead.

It’s not that there aren’t nice, sentimental memories—it’s just that you probably wouldn’t see them that way unless you were there.

See, my dad never actually told me he loved me. He never called me “son” and never kissed me even once that I can remember. The only time he hugged me and my siblings was once right before he was wheeled into the OR for cardiac bypass surgery. He got through it, but he was nervous. I was a senior in high school. You’d think I would remember that day because of the surgery—you don’t exactly go through that every day. But I remember it more because he actually hugged us. That was rarer.

He was a South Asian man born in the 1930s, first Indian, then Pakistani after the 1947 partition. He was the only one who made it out of his family of seven brothers and sisters to study in the West, first in Greece, then the US, then Canada. He had a progressive mindset in transition, with one of his graduate degrees in sociology. He was intellectually conscious and respectful of the inherent problems with gender stereotypes, but behaviorally and hormonally lagging. He married a progressive South Asian professor with a similar background—a woman also armed with a doctorate and a career—but remained constantly embroiled in a struggle between the expectations of the roles of men and women that he had been indoctrinated with since childhood, and the acquired intellectual awareness that they were largely bullshit. Occasionally, he could be an asshole. But he always meant well.

I was his first child, and his first son. I wonder if I was also his first experience with real intimacy. Not the voluntary social or romantic kind, but the vulnerable, unconditional kind you get from a helpless little kid who isn’t jaded enough yet to guard his unfailing trust in you, or pretend that he doesn’t need you as much as he does. I think it was mutual. He never expressed it verbally. And he didn’t really hug or kiss me as much as he wrestled with me or rolled me around in the sand. Guy things. When he got tired and I kept harassing him to play more—one of my earliest memories—he would throw me on his chest, bushy and manly like the African jungle that he convinced me it was, and tell me to look for all the lions and tigers. He would sleepily express his approval of every mole and scar I’d excitedly point out (my interpretation of the assigned task was fine as far as I was concerned) until I fell asleep.

So yeah, things like that. Mundane, everyday things that were very satisfying then, and remain so today.

No I-love-yous or I’ll-always-be-here-for-yous. No Just-talk-to-me-if-you-need-anything or Come-here-and-give-your-old-man-a-hug. No heart-to-heart talks or I’m-proud-of-you-son. Just a lot of doing stuff together. Pitching tents; making cars out of wood to race; shit-talking Reagan’s foreign policy to me when I was in 4th grade just as he would’ve to Reagan’s face if he ever met him (or so I thought); desensitizing me to my queasiness about killing bugs for my 7th grade insect collection, yet hinting at an appreciation that I possessed it; and hitting me hard if I was being a dick—and then instead of apologizing or hugging me afterwards, just, well, doing more things together. “Come with me to the grocery store. We need to get bread.”

I’ll probably tell my kids often that I love them, that I’m there for them, that they can count on me. It’s a different time, a different world … .”

I’m not a dad yet, and I don’t know what kind I’ll be. I don’t think I’ll be like my dad was. I’ll probably tell my kids often that I love them, that I’m there for them, that they can count on me. It’s a different time, a different world, and I’ll probably be a different dad than mine was. But a better one? That’s still a pretty tall order.

I never told him I loved him either, not when he was alive. That would’ve just been weird. Eleven years ago—right after we took him off life support, a few months after he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer—was the first time I really looked into his eyes. They were lifeless, and didn’t turn away. The jungle was still there, gray and still. I kissed his lips and said goodbye. And then I finally told him I loved him. I know he didn’t hear me. He was dead. But fuck it, I know he knew. Like I did.

 

Read more Father’s Day stories on The Good Life.

—Photo credit: archangel 12/Flickr

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About Ali A. Rizvi

Ali A. Rizvi is a writer, physician, and musician who lives in Toronto, Ontario. Having grown up in four different countries on three different continents, his interests are as diverse as the people he has met, known, befriended, and loved through his life. Ali likes being a man, and wants to continue being one for a while yet.

Comments

  1. Beautifully written, thanks for sharing. I can understand the hesitation to share emotions with south Asian family members. It is strange how death makes people more comfortable in saying “I love you” when they’ve never said it before. My grandmother actually stopped us from telling her we love her, she said it was something westerners say, and they don’t really mean it. She didn’t approve of it…until there was a tragic accident and we lost 4 family members. She said love you back after that. It is still rare and slightly awkward, though.

  2. I remember your Father. I have a lot of meories with him as well. He taught me how to swim. He Taught me how to drive a scooter. I miss him as well. Our Culture does not belive in saying I Love you all the time, neither does it belive in telling people that i will be there for you. The Concepts are different, We all know who loves us and how much and whom to be there for when needed. In our culture it is more about doing then just saying.

  3. Zaki Ahmed says:

    Excellent article. Very touching. I think most of us with South Asian dads have gone through this. I have two kids and I say I love you atleast three times a day if not more but I agree, it doesn’t mean anything more than my father never saying it at all. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Awesome piece and very relatable. Thanks for sharing your wonderful story about you and your dad.

  5. I’m crying as I write this. I never knew any of this . I never thought you had the capacity to verbalize this.

    I remember getting hugged and kissed by your father many times.

    But to date I have never admitted his demise. For me he is still in Riyadh or Canada just not being around as always. After reading this the reality has finally sunk in and I am mourning . I think he is the only Phuppa I have ever had any association with and now I miss him like hell.

    I don’t know if I am crying for him or for you. But for whatever’s worth I love you dearly…..and I love him dearly too :(

  6. Jeff McClaren says:

    Thanks for sharing. Fathers come in many forms. You only get one. No choice in the matter. It would be so difficult to choose one but if you could choose be that one.

  7. Beautifully written; I have tears in my eyes! Wow!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] My Dad Never Told Me He Loved Me. And That’s Perfectly Fine. [...]

  2. […] My friend’s note jolted me. Not because I didn’t have a response. I did. I just wasn’t sure how to articulate it in a way that was both accurate and emotionally supportive, her loss being so recent. It also forced me to revisit the death of my own father, who I had a very close relationship with. […]

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