Hard lessons learned

I got so caught up in the descriptions of Janet Muirhead Hill’s books that I neglected to see the essay she sent along with them. It’s just as well; it deserves to stand alone in its description of a father many of us know — the one whose ways inspire us to want to be like him even as his aloofness keeps us at arm’s length.


In many ways, I’m like him. I take a great amount of pride in some of the traits we share, and, as I discovered late in life, those very traits wrought not just the rift but also the deep chasm in our relationship. Sadly, I didn’t realize that until he was dying.

Tough, proud, stoic, untouchable, and in control, enigmatic in his quiet restraint, he kept his thoughts and feelings hidden. That’s the dad I knew as a child. Stubborn, stern, and hardworking, and uncomplaining of pain or setback. It was from his example—and his authoritarian parenting—that I learned not to cry and consciously and inevitably adopted his fierce independence.

I grew up fearing my father as much as I admired him. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to please him, and I never wanted to ask him for anything, or be close enough to experience his quick-tempered wrath, should I do something wrong.

He loved horses, cattle ranching, and the land. He was an expert horseman and horse trainer. I loved the times when he felt free enough and happy enough to sing and yodel in his perfect-pitch baritone voice. Those times were rare in my experience. I loved when he smiled with pride in his eyes at the antics and accomplishment of his children. I caught few glimpses of those as I grew to adulthood.

What I missed seeing was his devotion to his family, his stalwart love and protectiveness for every one of his six children. He wasn’t long on praise. Had I known how much he loved me, I would have confided in him when I was about to make one of the worst mistakes of my life. And he would have told me it was okay not to go through with it even though a church full of people and an expectant groom awaited me. But I didn’t know. I let him walk me down the long aisle to what I could feel was impending doom.

I made a lot of mistakes both because of the ways I was like him, and because I didn’t know what was in the secret recesses of his heart and mind. As I was swept away by the current of my life choices, I put geographic space to match the existing emotional one between us.

In his last days, after the stroke disabled him, I came back to help with his care. He couldn’t speak intelligibly then. But he didn’t have to in order for me to detect what I’d missed as a child and young adult. I’d seen hints of it on my brief visits home and his and Mom’s annual visits to see me and my family. I heard with some skepticism the positive comments he made to others about me. That was his way. He bragged about my siblings to me, but I doubt he ever thought to tell them. It wasn’t his way.

His last days at home confirmed what I was gradually coming to believe. He loved me. Always had. Was sorry for the things he had done to alienate me. Still, we didn’t talk. Because of his stroke he couldn’t. My pride and reticence, even at this last stage of the game, caused me to miss opportunities to communicate what I knew we were both feeling. I’ll always regret the moments I shrunk from opportunities when something meaningful could have occurred between us. But I finally understood him; what he had become in his old age and what he had always been. And I knew that he understood me. And, finally, it’s enough.

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