June 16, 2013

Appreciating Fathers

Me, my dad, and my oldest brother in 1962 sharing a son/father moment

Often fathers go unrecognized and under appreciated. I know that I was guilty of this omission when I was younger. When I finally came to realize how intelligent and wise my dad really was, he was struck down by the same brain tumour that he first battled in his twenties.

My dad started as the typical 50s dad stereotype, but later in life he learned, grew and mellowed enough to look back and question the confines of the box into which society had placed him.

Within the walls dad was a very successful member of society. Married, five kids, teacher, school principal, university professor, world traveler, active community member, and all around gentle and loving human being. But what about that other box we know as happiness?

Like most of us, dad looked back on his life and saw room for improvement. In 1999 after Father's Day he wrote me a heartfelt and brutally honest letter from the South Pacific where he was working as a volunteer administrator in a high school.

Of the early years of our family he wrote that "it's all a dream now", reflecting on how quickly our short lives pass. At the time he did not know that he was a few months shy of the end of his own abbreviated existence.

Dad shared insights about learning how to be a father from one's own father, even though your father's ways "may no longer apply, if they ever did". He wrote of the shifting gender roles in the 60's and 70's, and the rigidity of those roles previously.

"The father went out and earned the bacon. The mother stayed home and took care of things there. I thought this was the model to follow. Well, it didn't work. Deep down in my stomach, I knew that something was wrong."

"Behind the mask I wore, I felt lonely, little, sick and helpless."

My father was a thinker and lifelong learner as well as a teacher. He used these capabilities to change a great deal throughout his life - he always tried to do the right thing with the knowledge he had available  at the time. When he sent the letter he was ready to make more changes.

His letter concluded that "constructive action" was what must come from self-realizations. But what direction should this action take?

"Most of my life, either I don't know what constructive action to take or I am too chicken shit to take it", my father wrote.

Wow. Every time I read this letter I am gobsmacked by it all over again. Such honesty in revealing what I consider to be a universal feeling today - that something is not quite right. Obviously people have been feeling this way for quite a while.

As a 35 year teacher and 50s-style breadwinner, my father was frequently gone from home while at work, in meetings, giving presentations to community groups, advocating for teachers and students, and doing the countless number of other things that good teachers and "providers" do.

While he was working hard to "bring home the bacon" he missed out on much of our family life. That was, as he was told, my mother's responsibility. He knew what he missed out on by fulfilling society's narrowly defined expectations. He knew something was wrong. Society was wrong.

Unfortunately, dad wasn't doing what HE wanted to do all those years ago. By the time he wrote the letter to me he had the knowledge and the time to want to improve his relationships with his children and get caught up.

He died a few months later. The lessons he taught me will continue to enrich my own existence until I reach my end.

Thanks, dad. 

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