I was so proud of myself. The details are fuzzy, and so will be the retelling, but I’ll do my best. I was a student at Valencia Community College in Orlando. I had written something that had been chosen for some type of publication. It was a piece on family or something (I told you – fuzzy) and I had written about what qualities I’d inherited from those who came before me.
Somehow or another, my father came to read the thing. “Useless Southern Colloquialisms?” he asked, his facial expression somewhat pained, head tilted to make eye contact with me, questioning what I’d written as his “contribution” to the human that is me. Some were classics – “Hold Your Horses”, “Can’t Never Could” – and some were his own creation – “Atta boy, girl”. (That one was always one of my favorites, usually said when I did something klutzy or clumsy.)
It would be true to say that I wrote that bit to be funny, and I was inexplicably proud of my use of the word colloquialism. What I didn’t realize at the time – or even consider – was how a line like that would make Dad feel. The joke fell flat. As I studied my dad’s face as he read and his subsequent reaction, I realized I had hurt him. In that moment I felt so guilty, filled to the brim with shame. In an instant I had reduced my dad – the man who had taught me so much, sacrificed so much for me, come to my rescue more times than I could count – to a comic strip punchline. And that, of course, had cut him deeply. It wasn’t funny. It was rude. Cruel. Tone deaf. Ungrateful.
My dad and I (and our complicated relationship) have been on my mind so much lately, for obvious reasons. When a person dies, one of the many thoughts that swirls around in the minds of the ones who live, is how we could have done better. Regret. All the ways I hurt him, let him down, and all the ways I could have loved him well, been less selfish, expressed my deep and undying love and gratitude for his presence in my life.
I’ve been told that these aren’t the thoughts I should focus on, and I get it, it’s not good to dwell on mistakes that can’t be fixed. But I think it is a necessary part of healing, to look at a relationship like ours from all sides, to pore over old conversations searching for meaning and truth, to hope that somehow even when we were shitty kids they still knew how much we loved them.
Yes, my dad said the funniest things and he usually said them in ways that northerners likely wouldn’t understand. Many times when parenting my own kids I hear those same funny things come out of my mouth. It was actually one of my favorite things about him – his wit. Even so, when I remember this whole horrible “15 minutes of community college fame” situation, I cannot fathom why “useless southern colloquialisms” would be what I’d choose to say I inherited from him.
Maybe I thought he’d laugh. Maybe it was self-deprecation. Maybe I thought the other things I admired so much about him – his strength, his grit, his unconditional love, his fighting spirit – were not also mine, so I went with the one thing I knew we did have in common. The probable truth is that I didn’t think at all. I was young and selfish and had no understanding yet of the world, or of my dad as a human being.
So when I remembered this moment, details fuzzy but the hurt on my dad’s face clear as a bell, I said sorry. Right there, out loud, I talked to my dad and told him I was sorry for hurting him and that he was so much more to me than some silly phrases, country one-liners, and I hope he knew it. I hope he still knows it. One day I will tell him in person.
Lord willin’ and the creeks don’t rise.