My father’s birthday is tomorrow, and for the last three birthdays we haven’t been able to wish him a happy one in person. He is alive and well, but chose not to be in our lives. While it’s painful at times, I confess I have resolved not to be the one to bridge the divide. I learned my stubbornness from him, for better and for worse, and to be cliché, the ball is in his court.
My relationship with my father, however, is much more rich than the obvious questions around why two adults can’t seem to speak to one another; and my sports-metaphor-cliché is as good a preview as any. Even tense relationships aren’t all or nothing, and my father was a tremendous influence in shaping the strong, competitive, fiercely resilient woman I am today.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect!” There’s nothing like the sports dad who runs drills with you in between basketball practices, or who takes you on a 2.6 mile loop around the neighborhood to help you get in shape for the season. Believe me, I don’t have only complimentary words to describe it. However, though I may have cursed him under my breath, he did teach me that anything worth mastering took incredible work and effort. I learned not to expect to make the free throw if I wasn’t shooting a hundred a day. Tough lesson, but true to this day. When my seven year-old gives up trying to tie his shoes after 3 tries because “he’ll never get it,” I try to remind him that it’ll take 100 attempts, not three. So far, he still stomps away in frustration. I hope in time he’ll see.
“Work Hard. Play Hard.” My father has always been incredibly intense and demanding, which I’m sure benefitted his career, but he also really knew how to play. My mother would refer to him as a “big kid” or her “3rd kid.” I knew exactly what she meant, but it’s what I love the most about him. Ours lives were complicated by my mother’s chronic and progressively debilitating illness and many other challenges. Playing got us through many a day. My wife often refers to me among our friends as “the fun mom.” She is plenty fun herself, but I know what she means. While she’ll happily set up the sprinkler for our kids, it’s me that will run through it with them.
“Make your own choices, and live with the consequences.” Well into adulthood my father would remind me about the time I had a choice to sit on varsity basketball as a 5th grader. I wouldn’t be offered a lot of playing time, but I would practice with the kids both older and better. I chose to play with my peers and have a little more playing time. My father thought it was the wrong choice, but he let me make it. Who knows what choosing varsity may have resulted in, I’ll never know, but I didn’t become a basketball superstar by beginning on JV. Wrong choice? Who knows, but it was mine, and my consequences. We’re trying to pass that on by not replacing the toy they broke, the water bottle they lost, and letting them create the invite list for their birthday parties; but this is another hard one.
There are lessons I hope I never pass on as well, like the rulebook he expected others to follow but didn’t share, or the grudge-holding that resulted in many family cut-offs over the years, including now, my own. But we can learn valuable life lessons even from the mistakes of our parents, so as to not repeat history. For my sake, I hope I can introduce a little more compassion, kindness, and understanding the world view of “the other guy” before rushing to judgment, hoping that spares some irreversible decisions with consequences that impact multiple generations. Yet, our collective imperfections don’t negate my love, my gratitude, or my wishing him well. Happy Birthday Dad.