My 86 year old dad passed a year ago. Our relationship over the past 30 years evolved into one of mutual love, respect, and admiration. Aside from my husband and daughter, I am more authentic with my dad than anyone else. As a child, I never thought this could have happened. It is all because I said, “I love you’, first.
Growing up in a family of four sisters in the 50’s and 60’s, with young parents doing all that they could to keep food on the table and clothes on our backs, I felt rather invisible. As the second daughter, I was the typical people-pleaser and peace-maker in a sometimes conflicted and chaotic household. My dad worked hard as a music teacher while taking on other related jobs to bring in additional income: teaching private lessons, playing ‘gigs’ with various swing and jazz bands, and composing or arranging pieces for an established publisher. My mom put in long hours at a local hospital after becoming a registered nurse. Their absence in my life and my sisters’ was deeply felt.
All throughout those formative years, I did not feel close to my dad. In fact, I often felt like a stranger in our own house. I didn’t feel wanted and I didn’t feel like I was ever good enough. It wasn’t so much what was said as what wasn’t said. With years invested into academic and musical achievement, I desperately craved his affirmation, approval, and even acknowledgement. None was given. As a shy, introverted, and extremely sensitive young girl, I wanted my dad’s support, nurturance, and compassion. I remember only criticism, condemnation, and a cold distance between us. Although there were sporadic moments of laughter and mutual teasing in our family, love was not physically shown nor was it spoken. By the time I left for college, I was deeply angry at him and was determined to stay as far away emotionally and physically as possible. For nearly a dozen years, I did just that.
In my late twenties, I moved back to my hometown after accepting a teaching job. For several years, I lived nearby my parents. However, I maintained an emotional distance, especially with my dad. My childhood wound of anger festered within me and it grew into a resentment that filled my being. I didn’t expect anything to change. I didn’t expect my dad to change. And, I certainly wasn’t going to make any motions at improving our dynamic! After all, I owed my dad nothing. He owed me!
Several years passed. I met and married my husband, Dan. One night after dinner and after one of our many tear-filled conversations about my dad, Dan made a crazy suggestion. Because Dan knew how much I wanted and needed my dad’s love, he challenged me to tell my dad I loved him, first! I thought Dan was nuts! A healthy discussion ensued that lasted several days. And after an incredible amount of soul searching as well as realizing I had nothing to lose, a plan was devised and put into action.
After finishing a Sunday evening dinner at my parent’s house, Dan and I helped clean and then gathered up our belongings. I said a quick goodbye to my mom while following Dan to the front door. My dad was right behind me. Dan stepped onto the front porch and squeezed my hand, giving me the reassurance I needed. Turning to face my dad and say my goodbye, I put one hand on each of his arms, looked him straight in his eyes, and with my voice and body quivering, I shakily and softly spoke, “I love you.”
Without knowing what to do next, I witnessed my dad slump to the side, catching his weight against the baby grand piano that was nestled against the wall next to the front door. He face was drained of all color; he was speechless; he looked paralyzed. My eyes were filling with hot tears and I too felt weak. I turned quickly, closed the door behind me, and ran to the car. Dan grabbed me and held me tight. He whispered, “You did good. You won’t regret this…I promise you”.
Over the next weeks and months, every time I talked with my dad, either in person or on the phone, I always ended the conversation with, ‘I love you’. The silences on his end became less pregnant, and I, to my amazement, began to heal. The infectious wound of anger within was cauterized by the first searing incision of ‘I love you’ and with each voicing came the additional removal of years of hurt and pain. By the passing of eight months, I felt like a different person – whole and happy. It no longer mattered to me what my dad said or didn’t say. I had given myself the gift I needed – when I said I loved him, I let go of all that had wronged me. When I said I loved him, I made it right for me. And yet sadly, a part of me wished of my dad that he would be able to do the same for himself.
A few days later, I was talking with my dad on the phone, arranging a pick up time from school for my daughter. Before I hung up, I concluded with my usual, “I love you, Dad.” And without hesitation, but with such speed that I almost missed it, my dad huskily added, “I love you too, sweets”, and then he immediately hung up! I stood still in the kitchen but everything seemed to be swirling around me. I felt dizzy- almost faint – just like he had. My body relaxed and my mind calmed as I absorbed the magnitude of it all. Our relationship would never be the same.
Almost 30 years have passed since my dad and I began our mutual exchange of love. It would take pages and pages to share all that has happened – all that has healed and grown. It is enough to say that I have no regrets with my dad. I am at peace with him and he was with me. I am so blessed and thankful that I said, ”I love you”, first.