Four years ago today I said goodbye to my dad for the last time. He had been in and out of the hospital for a month and at the veterans’ home in between those hospital visits. I actually don’t remember much about leaving him that day. I don’t remember what I said to him. I don’t think he was even talking at that point, so I don’t think he said anything to me. I do remember that he was still in the hospital the last time I saw him. But he would be heading back to the veterans’ home later that day because there wasn’t anything else the hospital could do for him. He had reached the end of his days. He died very early the next morning at the veterans’ home. He was 80 years old, and it was the day before Father’s Day.
The really great memories of my dad come from my childhood. He was always the fun dad at the swimming pool. He would take us on long drives on Sunday afternoons. He would play Nintendo with me for hours. He loved my friends. And he always, always wanted to hold my hand. At some point, I stopped wanting him to, but he never stopped trying. Not even when I was 36. So although I got to the point where I didn’t want to hold his hand anymore, he still felt the need to have his hand near me, so it was often resting on my back. Guiding me through crowds. Pushing me forward a little when I felt too shy. Or as a safety net in case I fell. My dad’s hand was there so often that I am certain I can still feel the weight and warmth of it.
My relationship with my dad was sometimes difficult. Oftentimes, the disagreements we had centered around race. He was born and raised in the Jim Crow South, and his words and his thoughts often showed that. I grew up hearing my dad use words and phrases that were racist. It is painful for me to say that some of my earliest memories of racism come from what my dad said. Strangely enough, those memories don’t involve what he did though. What I heard him say and what I saw him do were vastly different. I saw him be kind to everyone. I saw him speak to every single person that crossed our path. I saw him laugh with teammates on his beloved softball team. I saw him interact fondly with co-workers. I saw him bond with our neighbors. Many of those people were Black.
The worst times my dad and I had were in my teenage years. We both were experiencing new freedoms. His as a recent retiree. Mine behind the wheel of a car. He had more time to be aware of my comings and goings, so he questioned them. I was trying to figure out how to be my own independent person. Those often didn’t mix well and we battled and argued. One particularly bad argument started when we were riding in the car together. I saw a friend at a stoplight so I waved at him. My dad immediately started interrogating me about my friend. I couldn’t understand why until he said this, “I’m so worried that you are going to marry a Black man!” But a decade later when I did bring home the man I was dating, my dad was as kind to that Black man as he was to every other person that walked through his door.
Dad and I had many conversations about race. They normally started with him saying something racist. I would tell him he couldn’t say that and he would ask why. When I responded in anger, we fought and went days without speaking. When I appealed to his sense of loving people, he listened and he tried to change. I think ultimately, he did change. Was it enough? Maybe not, but had I learned earlier to be more patient with him, maybe it would have been. I don’t want to make light of the racist things my dad said. These words are harmful and are often accompanied by racist actions. However, people can change if we have the courage to address racism (even in our own families) by speaking to people from a place of love instead of from anger. That’s how change happens.
So I still struggle with understanding my dad’s words vs. my dad’s behavior. On one hand, actions speak louder than words. On the other, words are so powerful. So from a man who said one thing but acted the opposite, came a daughter who tries to use her words and actions to help people change their behavior. And literally just as I typed that sentence, I think I get it. My father taught me many things. Some he taught me intentionally, some unintentionally. He taught me that people aren’t perfect, not even dads. He taught me to treat everyone with kindness and respect. He taught me that actions do speak louder than words. He taught me that when people are doing or saying racist things, that you have to try to treat them with kindness so they will listen and hopefully change. You have to do this even when these people aren’t your sweet daddy.
In the four years since my dad has been gone, I have made some big life decisions. I quit a job I thought I would be doing for the rest of my life. I moved back to my hometown full-time. I started speaking up more about racial inequities, particularly those in education. And every time I made one of those decisions, I wondered what he would have thought. Would he have been proud of me? And then I stop and think about the moments I made those decisions. In each of them, I could feel the weight and the warmth of my daddy’s hand on my back. (Ok, let me be honest, sometimes I’m pretty sure he had both of his hands on my back shoving me forward!) Of course, he would have been proud of me. He was helping to push me toward those decisions.
My daddy was not a perfect man, but he was still the best man I have ever known. I am his daughter; like him in many ways. That didn’t always make me proud, but it does now. I wouldn’t be who I am if he wasn’t who he was. And I swear I would give just about anything for him to try to hold my hand again. This time I would let him.
“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” -Freud