I See You, Dad — An Open Letter to My Dad on Father’s Day

My parents and I at my law school graduation, May 1997.

My parents and I at my law school graduation, May 1997.

Here’s how I knew this lung cancer thing was real. I was in the hospital. I’d had my biopsy and diagnosis the day before. Upon hearing the news, my parents had flown up and had been in my room all day, talking with me and my doctors, and when it came time for bed, my Mom jokingly offered my dad a Xanax. He turned her down, and then a few minutes later as he was heading out the door, he half-jokingly said, “Barb, maybe I will have one of those.”

Ho. Lee. Crap.

You see, I’ve never seen my father take anything stronger than an aspirin in my life. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t curse, he doesn’t gamble, and he doesn’t joke about any of those things either. On top of that, he’s about as level-headed and unflappable as they come. When he gets upset, he uses the word “unequivocal” a lot and does this thing with his fingers, sort of like an “ok” sign with the middle, ring and pinky fingers sharply pointed at you emphasizing his unequivocal point. That’s it. If you get his three finger salute, you’ve gone a little too far. If he’s joking about taking a Xanax? Now it’s time to panic.

Sometimes I’ve bristled at his over-the-top wholesomeness and old-fashioned ways. He ran a very tight ship when I was growing up. He woke me up in the mornings belting out Reveille on his pretend trumpet. He made me have a study schedule, allowing for only two 5 minute restroom breaks while doing my homework between school and dinner time. When I went to camp and later to college, I’d receive letters from him on his law firm letterhead, in outline format with line numbers for reference and Bluebook compliant footnotes.(1) When it came time for me to rebel and establish my independence like any normal teenager, I did so by switching from his beloved Lotus Word Pro to Microsoft Word.(2) You cannot imagine the amount of unequivocal triple finger pointing that earned me. I almost got disowned.

But, we made it through. Even in the midst of my wild Microsoft rebellion days, my Dad was my unshakable rock. Once, when I was about 15, I woke up to something tickling my arm. I went to groggily itch it and discovered a huge cockroach. I flung it off me, and it started flying around thrashing into things. I screamed like crazed goat. My Dad came barreling down the hall in his pajamas, wielding a baseball bat. When he discovered the cause of upset was not mortal danger, but a common beetle, he almost took the bat to me, but then he just laughed, swapped the bat for a wad of toilet paper and took that sucker down. That’s love.

Unfortunately, he can’t take down cancer for me with toilet paper, or even a baseball bat. Still, he’s trying just the same. While I fight in the foreground, and my mother toils in the semi-background, my father stays mostly in the back-background, toiling just as diligently, in his own way.

We’re not super talk-about-your-feelings type of people. So, I haven’t said this to him directly. But, I want him to know now: I see you, Dad. I see you quietly visiting your mom twice a day for decades, and I learn what family means. I see you forcing me to pick up all the softballs left in the outfield after practice, and I learn a little humility. I see you showing up to my tennis matches to root me on, and I learn about unconditional support. I see you running a business that not only affords your family a comfortable life, but stability for half a dozen employees and their families, and I learn about hard work and responsibility. I see you with your military history, and I learn about duty and honor. I see you keeping in touch with your childhood friends, your college “Dollars,” your law colleagues, your Mexican “family” and your army buddies, and I learn about loyalty and friendship. I see you driving the same broken down car for decades so that I don’t have to pay off school loans, and I learn about values. And in this past year and a half? In this past year and a half, I see you burying yourself in your work, so you can think less about what it might mean that cancer took your father when you were only 27 and now it’s threatening your only daughter, and I see love. I see you offering to help cover any medical expense I might need without the slightest hesitation, and I see love. I see you quietly staying home by yourself, while Mom comes to take care of me for weeks at a time, and I see love. I see you not complaining once about the burden this has put on you in so many ways, and I see what it means to be a parent: above all else, love.

I’m not very good at expressing it in person, Dad. But I see it all, and the sheer magnitude of it just crushes me with awe and gratitude. I spend my life trying to live up to the high standards you have always set for me. I hope to do you proud. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

(1) I’m not even joking.
(2) Id.