My dad Terry is a complicated figure in my life. While I love him, it has taken a long time for me to like him. I have known him as a teacher, fisherman, hunter, builder, philanderer and monster. While I have mostly identified him as my father (I tried to deny him once, but that’s a different story), about six years ago he graduated to being my dad.
When I was 5-years old, my parents finally divorced. For nearly twelve years, I was forced to endure every other weekend visits with Terry. It was torturous being with the monster; he was demanding, unloving, and aloof. My only saving grace was the bow and arrow set he bought me when I was 9-years old. It was a kids’ toy, nothing dangerous for the time. Though today, it would require a background check and a license.
I would escape the confines of the house and shoot arrows great distances imagining a hay bale as a woolly mammoth or a flock of sparrows as swarming pterodactyls. As I aged, I graduated from a toy bow and arrow to a lawn darts, a BB gun, then a shotgun after I got my safety license at age eleven.
On Sunday mornings, Terry and my step-mom would load my brother and me into the truck and take us to church where I got to see the major contradiction in his life surface. He was charming and warm; inviting people to be with God and singing bible hymns with great vigor. Once back in the truck, his soured puss would return as he pontificated what was wrong with the people at church. Years later, we stopped attending church because the pastor was too liberal for letting a woman lead the choir.
This was my childhood every other weekend. Yes, he did buy me a computer and eventually my first car, but everything always had a price attached. I swear I have a tab sitting in his office that he will expect me to pay after I finish my PhD. Sadly, I am sure this is true for a lot of people.
Even more frustratingly, for most of my life I heard the story that men were strong, hard, and stoic.
But, six years ago things shifted in my relationship with Terry. He called me one evening to tell me he and my step-mom were divorcing after 25 years of marriage. He was cold and blunt about the situation; the divorce wasn’t his idea. I knew he was upset because he talked for nearly three hours. Our longest conversation before that was when he told me he married my step-mom while my brother and I were in Florida, which took fifteen minutes.
For the next three months, every night he would call me to talk about the latest drama surrounding the divorce. At first, he yammered on for three hours every night. Gradually, it shifted into a father-son conversation that lasted three hours. When he was yammering about, he was looking for sympathy and pity. But when he allowed his emotional self to surface, the yammering shifted to a meaningful talk; it became a conversation where he allowed himself to be vulnerable, caring, concerned, and understanding.
Until this moment, my father was like an actor reading from a well-rehearsed script. He knew his lines. During our fifth or sixth call, he went off script. Something shifted for him, and he cried. Terry was finally doing improvisation and ignoring his old misogynistic script. He showed his vulnerable side to me for the first time. It was like he reached deep inside himself to unbury the little boy who wanted to cry, be afraid, and be loved.
My father was in agony because he felt rejected by my step-mom, and his pain went deeper than her. He had been rejected by his father, his first wife, and his son. Worse yet, he rejected himself for not living up to some expectation he fabricated about his life. I still want to know what that is, but some things a child shouldn’t know.
In this moment when he touched his pain, his need for validation vanished and he showed me that men could cry; men could love, and men could be gentle. It was this moment that Terry became dad and I finally heard “I love you.” I finally felt important to him and to me.
I do not know what finally allowed him to tear down the “macho” wall, but I am glad it happened. Part of me wished it had happened sooner, but everything has a time and place.
Six years ago, I learned a series of valuable lessons about men while talking with my dad about his divorce. I discovered it is okay to cry. It is okay to say “I love you.” It is okay to be sweet and gentle. It is okay to smile. It is okay to snuggle. It is okay to say you are proud. It is okay to own up to your mistakes. It is okay to be vulnerable, and it is always okay to give a great big bear hug.