Before submitting my writing for online publication, I often send it to my friend Craig for feedback. The advice he offers ranges from pointing out typos to critiquing overall themes. But it was his response to my latest piece, "I Didn't Go to College and I'm Proud of It," that helped me revise my life rather than my words.
At the conclusion of my story, I wrote, "I always wonder: is my father truly proud of where I ended up?" After I sent him the latest draft, Craig quickly responded, "You should ask your dad what he thinks...I recently spoke to my sister about my father and events from thirty years ago, I learned about stuff I never knew." Even though his advice was based on the single question of whether my father was proud of me, he made me realize how my father's communication, or lack thereof, had affected me in my adulthood.
I have never known what my father truly thinks of me and what I have done in my life. You may think that's crazy, but stop for a moment and think about it. Do you really know what your father thinks? Yes, he may say he's angry, that he loves you, that he's proud, but do you know why he is thinking these things? And are some of you, like me, completely uncertain about what your father thinks at all?
I have received very tiny bits and pieces of information over the years, good and bad -- mostly bad. But generally, the little I do know about my father's opinions, I know through my mother. She has always served as his translator, as if my father and I didn't speak the same language. She would always explain the thoughts he expressed to her but refused to share with me: "Your father is upset." "Your father is so happy."
The truth is, my father's secrets -- his hidden thoughts and emotions -- have dramatically affected how I deal with the people in my life. I'm always wondering what people think of me, especially men. And I am desperate for affirmation from the people I work with, particularly from people who don't offer it up easily.
No one just wakes up and decides against communicating and being emotionally available; it's learned. And for men, it's usually learned from our fathers. I acknowledge that emotional unavailability is mainly a generational issue. Men in this day and age tend to be more understanding; they are kinder and gentler fathers. But most men refuse to break the cycle of not sharing their emotional side with their kids. For them, such a change is much too painful, because it forces them to explore why they do what they do.
Some may say, "Oh that's just the way fathers are. They're the providers. They're emotionally unavailable." I disagree. Our fathers are more complicated than we give them credit for. I have no doubt that my father feels the same emotions I feel. After all, he is human, but he was never taught to share or expose his emotions. He doesn't know any other way of living.
My sister used to tell a story about my father that seemed so normal to me years ago. Now it just makes me sad. When she was in college, my parents would check in by calling her every couple of weeks. My father would speak with her first. He would ask her about her grades and whether she had enough money. After engaging in his much-needed transfer of information, he would hand my mom the phone. Her first question was always, "How are you?" My father was asking the questions he thought were expected of him as a father, not the questions my sister needed to be asked.
Since I moved to Los Angeles, my father has sent me a birthday email every year, without fail. It's always the nicest moment of my day. While his emails are short, it is through them that I can sense his love for me. My favorite part is when he tells me if my age that year is a prime number. The man really loves his prime numbers. He doesn't know this, but I've saved every single birthday email since I turned 21. Ten emails. Those emails are the only tangible examples I had of my father's love and affection.
After 31 years, I had come to accept my father's lack of communication as a part of his personality, and at 74 years old, I didn't think it was possible for him to change the fundamentals of his character.
And as much as I tried to implement Craig's advice and ask my father if he was proud of me, I couldn't muster the courage. After I sent him the piece about not going to college, my father quickly responded, saying, "After I read your article, I cried with tears of joy."
Craig always gives incredibly sage yet succinct advice about my work. But now, his advice has done more than adjust the structure of my sentences; it has changed the structure of my life. He taught me that while my father has secrets he doesn't willingly share, it is possible for me to ask about his feelings and opinions, instead of simply accepting his silence. The best part about this experience has been learning that we don't need my mother to translate anymore.
My father and I definitely speak the same language -- and not just on my birthday.