February 2006 – Normal, IL
A letter to my father on his 60th birthday
It is hard for me to believe that my father is 60 years old. Memories from when you used to take me to my soccer games, or sit with me in front of the computer helping me write my papers, or when we took the road trip to visit colleges – all of these memories have the quality of immediacy. They say that our capacity for memories is infinite, that once you begin digging into your past, there is no end to it. You are embedded in my past lives, through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. There was a golden age for our family and that was perhaps before my 10th birthday. I have fond memories of riding with you and mother in the back of the car. I don’t know exactly where we were driving to – perhaps out to dinner or to a movie. And as we were driving through the Midwest Club, I remember telling jokes to you and mom and making both of you laugh. I don’t know what I said that was so funny but mother would laugh hysterically. Our family was gay, cheerful, and young.
In my childhood and early adolescence, you instilled in me a rare gift which I am grateful for. I imagine that most parents, as they are raising their children, do not analyze the effect such and such a behavior will have on their children. Whatever you taught me at an early age, you taught to me by instinct. What you have given, that I cherish and employ to this day, is a freely-chosen self discipline. Without self-discipline, I doubt whether I could have stayed clean from drugs this long. Without self-discipline, I doubt I could pursue my literary ambitions. Without self-discipline, even staying in shape and quitting smoking would have been impossible. Now I have received many gifts from both you and mother but this is the gift that stands out to me as being directly from you.
The other gift, which is a close second, is a love and appreciation of literature. About a month ago we were reading Shakespeare together – how joyful was I to be in your company reading again. And what a stark contrast from my childhood years when I used to throw tantrums to escape the “reading hour.” But time and patience transform everything. Here I am today thanking you for what I felt you had imposed upon me as a child. The irony implicit in this life – the story speaks for itself.
Though for a good many years mostly when you made me read out loud to you – I imagined you as an overbearing tyrant which of course you were not. But a child sometimes sees his parents through a distorted lens. And as an adolescent, especially during my addition and during the divorce, I imagined you as a personification of evil. I might have made you into a voodoo doll if I had access to one. This of course is an exaggeration but I had a lot of resentment to you and many others during this period. What still baffles me to this day is not only the spiritual strength you must have had stored in you to protect yourself from me, but also the warmth you kept burning in your heart. Never did you grow cold, never did you reject me – but always loved me – and therefore this is the best model of unconditional love I have ever been shown. And it is this model of unconditional love that I emulate toward myself and others.
After the fog of my addiction cleared, after I began to mature into early adulthood and started taking care of my body and my health, you can imagine how my view of you began to change. In a way, I immortalized you – lifted you up from the ranks of man to the tier of godhood. You became a living hero to me and I sought to model my life after you. Indeed, I had transformed my life. I was living from what many would call a second birth and after years of abusing you, I must have wanted to pour a special salve on the relationship that would heal the wounds between us. But just as during my adolescence when I made you a voodoo doll, after my recovery, I was making you into my Buddha, my idol and I was near worshiping you. But neither of these images of you matched your true relation to me.
So today, on your 60th birthday, I ask the questions – What is your true relation to me? If you are not the man I blame or the man I praise, then who are you to me? And without being too philosophical, too entangled in speculation, I feel I can make the judgment that only now am I coming to see you as you are, and to love you for the man you are. For the first time, I am not inflating or deflating you – but really starting to get to know you. When I came over a couple weekends ago and we hung up pictures and organized your books, I saw a glimpse of who that man is who I call my father. No adjective will describe him. Not because he has no qualities – but because he is of a spirit that transcends qualities. He is an individual but not an ego. He reminds me of myself but overflows beyond myself.
Dad, I love you. A gratitude is present in me right now as I pen these final words. The mystery is so inconceivable – so infinite – it surrounds me like a dream. All I am thinking – this life is too short, too short, too short…