My father died earlier this year, and today is his birthday.
In his honor, today’s post is about fathers, a quick tip on how to easily and radically improve your relationship to your father, and a little story about my dad (that has some universal truth about every man’s relationship to his father).
On March 4th, I woke up in the morning and, as went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and get ready to head out to the airport, I realized that the pain in my back was gone.
I had been living with this pain since around the time that my father was diagnosed with cancer 3 year earlier, and it had been getting increasingly worse.
It seemed to be some kind of knot in the muscle. I had been to dozens of massage therapists, acupuncturists, and body workers, but it still kept me up at night. And the spooky thing was– it was in exactly the same place that my father’s lung cancer was giving him the pain that kept him up nights.
The hospice doctors had told me over the phone that he probably had a few months or maybe only weeks left, and so that morning my wife and I were flying down to North Carolina so that we could spend my father’s last days together. We packed heavy because we didn’t know how long we might be down there.
My calendar still has the notation on it, with our flight number from JFK to RDU.
As I stood there looking at myself in the mirror, with no pain in my back for the first time in many months, I thought, damn, I wonder if this means that dad died…
I got the call an hour later, just before our cab came to take us to the airport. I had missed his last moments by mere hours.
I never got to say goodbye. But I have not been obsessing about that fact. I rest easy with it because I got a better completion than most men get with their fathers.
I was a very curious kid, and dad used to love to explain things to me. In fact, we both loved it.
I remember sitting at the dining room table as he roughly sketched out how the internal combustion engine worked on one of mom’s kitchen pads. He showed me how the crankshaft opened one valve for gas to flow in, then closed it just before the spark plug ignited the fuel, sending the piston flying back and opening the exhaust valve as the piston returned and pushed the exhaust out.
Somebody thought of that? Then built it and made it work? Genius! And my dad was the smart guy who could explain it all to a 9 year old.
I remember him floating a metal baking pan in a sink full of water to explain Archimedes’ Principle. He filled the pan with water, slowly showing me how it sank lower, displacing more water– the exact amount of water that was equal in weight to the floating pan and its cargo.
It’s funny because my father was no science geek. He was in sales, and he hated school as a kid. But clearly he must have been curious about how the world worked too, because he picked all this stuff up somewhere along the line.
I can’t wait for the day that my future kid asks me a question like that. I can’t wait until I get to explain the weird ways in which the Universe works, and what we humans have figured out, and see it again through the eyes of a child. How gorgeous and exciting that level of curiosity would be to see in my own child… I am longing for the chance to reward that curiosity the way my dad did.
Unlike my dad, I loved school, and I was a pretty smart kid, and there came an inevitable day when I knew more about how stuff worked than he did.
I don’t mean that I was wiser than him or that he had nothing left to teach me (though I’m sure that’s exactly what I thought as a teenager), I mean that I had filled my head with lots of facts, and that I grew up during a time when textbooks were being re-written with the new things we were learning. Our understandings of how things worked had changed, and my father’s understanding on some of these things was now… wrong.
Not only that, but consciousness itself had evolved. The way we looked at who we are as humans and our place in the Universe had expanded.
It irrevocably harmed our relationship when there were no longer many things in the universe for him to explain to me, when I understood subtleties that he could not grasp, and when he explained things, and I saw the flaws and mistakes he made along the way.
I wanted him to see and acknowledge that I had grown, that I was smart, that I knew things– even things he didn’t know. I wanted his approval for the man I had become. (If that doesn’t sound familiar to you, then you are not a human).
And of course, while it was difficult for me to see, or even conceive as a young man, he wanted me to acknowledge that his world view was wise, that he was a capable father, that he still knew things that I would never know. He wanted my respect as both the father and as the man that he was.
And so we triggered each other and argued, and sometimes even raised our voices and got emotional, because we loved each other and wanted each other’s approval.
My good friend (and profound wise-man), Bryan Franklin, once said to me:
If your father completely understands and agrees with everything that you are doing with your life, then he failed as a father, and you failed as a child to appropriately expand beyond the previous generation’s understanding of the world.
Bryan said to me that he looks forward to the day when his own son exceeds him, and he can no longer fully understand what he’s up to in the world.
So here’s my little tip for dramatically improving your relationship with your father:
Ask his advice about something. To really do it right, make sure it’s something that’s actually important to you and that you are having an internal struggle with dealing with. And then (and this is the key part), truly and deeply consider his words and find what’s valuable in his advice.
I actually gave this advice to a friend of mine before I ever tried it myself…
She was struggling with the fact that her father never gave her approval for anything. There was no amount of success, no victory or accomplishment that would satisfy him. He always ended up telling her how it might have gone better, or how she might have done things more intelligently.
This was extremely painful for her, and it infected other parts of her life as well, leaving her stuck on the “accomplishment treadmill”.
I said: Go ask his advice on something important and really listen to what he has to say, even if he completely disagrees with what you think the answer is.
They had the best conversation of their lives, and she got off the phone beaming and with tears in her eyes.
And yet, somehow, when I took my own medicine, and asked my father for some important advice, we ended up arguing.
His advice to me seemed to suggest that he thought I wouldn’t be able handle things. He advised caution where I thought I could be bold. He wanted me to play small where I wanted to go All In.
I thought his advice reflected a lack of confidence in my abilities. I felt hurt and shamed.
And when I told him this, he felt hurt and shamed that I was calling his fathering skills into question.
The failure in this case was mine. I failed to have the courage to really listen to his advice and then sit with it without judgement, and do the work to find what was valuable inside of it.
Of course my father urging me to caution was simply his way of loving me, of looking out for me.
I didn’t agree with the way he was choosing to love me, but in this life, it is almost always far more important that we are loved than that we get to choose how we are loved.
After dad got cancer I got better at this.
Not perfect. But better.
A few months before my father went into hospice, he said the most emotionally vulnerable thing to me that he had ever said in all of the years that he had been my dad.
We were talking about my future children. My wife is much younger than me, and her parents are much younger than my parents, and dad confided to me that he was worried that his lessons, his priorities, and his culture would fail to be passed on to his grandchildren– because they would be around, and he would not be.
Actually he was talking about Judaism. I was raised marginally jewish, and my wife is nominally Christian. But my father was never a practicing jew, never went to the temple, and didn’t understand any of the Hebrew prayers. (He did like the holiday meals though).
What I understood was that he wasn’t really talking about Judaism at all, but his deeper fears, perhaps secret even to himself, that his influence, his wisdom, his fatherhood wouldn’t be passed down to my children.
He was reflecting that perhaps, in the end, his son didn’t value his lessons about life.
I stood in silence for a moment as I realized what I poor job I had done in receiving my father’s love. How poorly I had communicated to my father how powerful and positive an influence he had been on my life and who I had become as a man.
I suppose there was a part of me that just figured he must know, because, well, he was dad. There was still a part of me, that child that lives in all of us throughout our lives, that simply thought he knew everything.
Didn’t he understand what I meant when I said, “I love you”?
I said, “Dad, your life, your marriage to mom, the way you modeled for me how to love, the way you demonstrated what was truly possible in a life-long and passionate marriage… don’t you see that I’ve based my entire life on it? Everything I am, everything that makes me proud to be me, and everything that I teach to other men, all comes from my careful consideration, analysis, and exploration of who you are as a man.”
And about 3 months before he died, there in the living room, he got it. He nodded, got a tear in his eye, and gave me a long hug.
And that was how I got the great and rare gift of being complete with my father before he died.
It took his moment of vulnerability, and me simply saying exactly what was true. And neither of those things are easy for fathers and sons.