Though his father was absent for most of his childhood, Juan Rodriguez remembers the love of his father.
Loving my father wasn’t always a struggle or something I needed will power in which to consciously engage. It would just happen. There were brief moments, like hidden treasures, among my childhood recollections for which I continue searching, finding, and using to inspire hope.
There was a time in my life when my father would hug, kiss, and hold me without thinking about it or asking me for permission. He would see me running towards him, into his arms, and these responses were simply natural—unquestionable. At five years old, I was still lucky enough to get away with that for a few more years until he wouldn’t be able to carry me any longer and until our interactions would be judged upon as “questionable” or “inappropriate.” At 22, I am able to still throw myself into the arms of my mother and lavish her with kisses, but I still live in a society that makes me question if it’s even OK to shake my father’s hand.
This year, just a few days before Father’s Day, I casually came across the movie My Life, starring Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman, entirely unaware of the sacrilegious impact it would have on me, barely able breathe through my tears as the film reached its end. I went home that night with the immediate compulsion to write my father a letter—much like the other letters I managed to write to him throughout my childhood, realizing it had become impossible for me to have a real conversation with him. The letter read as follows.
I was stricken today by the innumerable things that we never seem to say or share with one another. Sometimes because it never seems appropriate. Sometimes because we were never taught the ways to say certain honest things to another man or to share of ourselves what has been most important or heartfelt. I wanted to write to you because I was remembering a time in my life when I didn’t care about “proper ways” to express appreciation to my father, and honestly I’ve spent the majority of my life regretting every missed opportunity that we didn’t tell each other or express to each other what was most significant in our relationship as father and son.
I remember six quick years of my early childhood when I had, received, and recognized unmistakably the love of my father, when you were my biggest idol and greatest hero. I wanted to bring you back to those memories to tell you that I never forgot what that felt like, and if I had only a few moments left to live, I would remember those as some of the most important memories of my entire existence.
I wanted to confess to you that I actually do think of you very often. I see you every morning in my reflection; I remember you when I pass my fingers through my hair the way you used to when you put me to sleep when I was little, and I have thus linked that simple motion with an unmistakable reminder of how much I know you’ve loved me.
I think about you everytime I drive because I spent most of my childhood observing in close detail how you always drove me around and how much you loved it—I love driving now simply because of the reminder of how much you loved being at the steering wheel, showing your children the world through our passenger windows.
I think about you everytime I shave because it was you that taught me how to shave without shaving cream, and so I’ve spent years without ever purchasing shaving cream so the act can be a daily reminder of you.
I think about you every time I put on a tie because I spent years waiting for you to teach me how to do it—rejecting anyone who might try to show me—and ultimately only learning by retracing my memories of seeing you at the mirror. I put on these ties feeling myself momentarily more sophisticated or professional, the way you always hoped I would be as an adult.
There are so many things that serve as these constant, habitual reminders of you, as I continue to miss your presence in my life, and always, always continue loving you.
Juan Rodriguez Jr.
I emailed him this letter remembering the first letters I ever wrote to him when he was in jail, waiting for hours by our landline in the kitchen for his call. Remembering the one time—at age 14—that he responded to my letters, clinging to the same memories of me at five years old, on the edges of a Christmas card that he covered with drawings of power rangers and a small phrase of tiny text at the bottom that read:
“I love you Junior” – El Papi
Despite the distance that was pushed between us in our lives and all the ways that we internalized the violence that seemingly made our love impossible, I’ll always be proud to have been able to share at least those memories with my father, and I know that both of us will continue holding onto them like gold.