My Dad was all sharp edges and no-nonsense discipline with few verbal "I love you's." But inside, he had a warm squishy heart that I could wind around my finger. And I knew it.
I seriously doubt if he ever changed a dirty diaper or cleaned me up when I was icky-sick, but he'd wake me in the morning with a tickle, and kiss me goodnight at bedtime whenever he was home. In all my growing years, through good times and bad, I never doubted that he loved me.
As a very young child during WWII, I remember his long absences, as much as his presence. When I'd asked my mom why he was never home, she would reply, "He's helping save America from the Nazis."
I had no idea who the Nazis were, but from the tone of my mother's voice, they were really, really bad people, and I was sure my daddy was the savior of the world. I didn't learn until year's later that he was actually a pilot in the China-Burma-India Theater -- not even on the same continent with Hitler -- transporting troops and equipment over the treacherous Himalayas (the Hump) to the beleaguered Nationalist Chinese.
But I forgive my mother. A world at war was a far too complicated and scary to explain to a pre-schooler. Whenever the radio blared news about a battle that had been won or lost, Mom and I would huddle near the big wooden console and I'd listen in rapt attention, hoping the announcer might mention my Dad's name.
Try as I could to understand the need for his long absence, I longed for him to swing me high over his head and give me a "goozle" (a kiss on the neck that sent me into wails of giggles) and call me his pet name, "Monkey." This same tough guy whose words of love were few wrote me letters on razor thin Air Mail paper inquiring about the health of my favorite doll, Plassie, who would strangely come down with the chicken pox or measles at the same time I did.
When victory was declared and Daddy came home to us, he continued to travel, first as a pilot for the Flying Tigers and then as a residential lighting sales representative. Every Monday morning, he drove off into the sunset, and every Friday night he returned home. Those days were particularly anticipatory, as he would roll in bringing something far better than toys we couldn't afford -- brand new matchbook covers he had picked up from fancy hotels or roadside dives for my fast-growing collection. I carefully preserved each one in a special scrapbook, and we admired them together.
He wasn't the kind of dad who ran carpools since he traveled on business in our one family car or took me on excursions by himself like Jeff Pearlman ("A Father's Day Wish: Wake the Hell Up!") -- unless it was to his favorite private airport to observe "touch and go" landings. I didn't care where we went, as long as he held my small hand in his giant-size paw.
As I grew up, we experienced the usual parent-child struggle, "No, you're not leaving my house wearing that outfit," or "be home at midnight sharp," and we'd have sharp exchanges. Miraculously, a few years after I graduated from college, I realized that he had seemingly learned even more than I had. He became my financial mentor and financial adviser, the one I consulted on stock investments and home ownership. "Never spend more than you can pay for, only buy blue-chip stocks, don't lend more than you can afford to lose and invest in real estate." He rarely steered me wrong.
Years passed. I married, had kids, matured; Dad aged, and I knew he wouldn't be with me forever. Then in a span of two weeks, I lost both my dad and my husband -- one to a weariness brought on by old age and the death a year earlier of my sweet mom, the love of his life. The other to that demon named Cancer. Both slipped from my arms and left a double void that can never be filled.
Each Father's Day brings back memories of time and love shared and lost. My children and grandchildren gather around the three trees we planted in memory of Mom, Dad and Phil to send balloons aloft, hoping they reach their destination. Though our gifts are symbolic, we hope that somehow our loved ones will know how much they are missed.
Did Dad and I miss the kind of father-child relationship Pearlman describes? Perhaps. Would I trade him in for a model that was more hands on? Probably not.
For those who still have an opportunity to tell their imperfect dads in person, say "thank you for your presence in my life" and skip the fancy presents.
And for the dads out there who are still tuned out, I echo Pearlman. "Wake the hell up."