For my vast readership (lol), here once again is the letter to my Dad posted on Fathers Day 2006.
It’s been a little less than six years now, since your body gave out and you left this “mortal coil”. And today, Fathers’ day, 2006 I wanted to try to put into words some of the things I never got around to saying to you.
First, I want to say I love you, Dad. I seem to think I did say that later on in our lives, but when I was growing up, I probably didn’t usually get around to it. And honestly, even though I know without a shadow of a doubt that you loved me deeply and unconditionally, I think you would agree that you had a difficult time saying so, too. It took me a long time to reach the emotional maturity to realize just how much I needed you, and hope and pray that we will get a chance to deepen our bond in the next life.
I remember the joy you got from telling the story of you holding me in your arms when I was just a little boy, looking up in wonder at the night sky together, and me saying “Whole buncha ‘tars”. I know you were part of the generation that taught that ‘big boys don’t cry’, but I bet you shed a few tears of happiness over that brief moment in time together! And until now, I never realized how much I miss you telling it! It’s a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life, because we were never closer as father and son than we were at that moment.
You also loved to tell the story of how I started walking. You held one end of a belt while I held the other, and for a while that gave me the confidence to take those first few steps. Then you let go of your end, and I just kept going. What a proud Papa you were!
In fact, you loved telling stories. Often, the stories you would tell your grown-up friends were the kind you would have to explain to us kids by saying “I’ll tell you when you’re 21”. But the stories I want to remember most are the ones that prove to me just how much you loved us.
Later, we were introduced to a side of you that made us all run for cover. We (Dave, Cathy and I) would get into some kind of trouble, and you would line us up, tell us to “Stand up straight!” and “Look me in the eye!” After what seemed like a very long time, you would finally say “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”
We would never have a reply more relevant than “I dunno”. Then the admonitions would often be followed by the punishment, which would never involve significant physical pain, but would always involve the threat of that razor strap. You were a master at the psychological side of that discipline, and we were all impacted greatly by it. Only later in life did I come to realize that that discipline made me a better man than I ever could have become without it!
I also want to thank you for so effectively shaping some of my character traits. From the earliest age I can remember, you told me that the one thing you could count on me being is absolutely honest. It may not really have been true, but it set such an expectation for me that I attached high value to being honest. As I grew and matured, I acted with more honesty than I felt, because my Dad told me I was honest! What a powerful effect that had on shaping me.
I also remember a couple of things that seemed kind of harsh at the time. You were told by my teachers that I didn’t seem to want to work very hard. You told me that if I didn’t work hard in school, I would end up being a ditch-digger. (In your day, ditches were dug by sweaty, dirty, hard-working men with hand shovels!) You also had a phrase you would use to communicate your expectation that I should be working on my homework after school. Being a man of few words, you would simply say (with emphasis) “BOOKS!”
I didn’t like either of those spoken messages much at the time, but I remembered them both well. And they apparently had some effect, since I eventually learned the value of hard work. Thanks for loving me enough to discipline me, Dad.
Someone once said that life is what happens while we are busy making other plans. And of course, we were not exempt. You were transferred to Japan when I was 11, back to D.C. when I was 15, Germany when I was 20, and by the time you got back to stay, I was married and my first daughter Becky was just ready for you to teach her how to walk. I’m honored that she took her first steps for you. (Did you really use the belt thing on her?)
So here I am looking back on our years together, and wishing so much that we could have put life on hold, and just gotten to know each other better. You were a good man, and a good Dad, and I really miss you! Only later in life have I come to realize some of the things you had crash in on you when you were growing up that shaped you into who you were.
I remember your description of watching the car drive off with your brother and sister, who were going to different relatives to live. Your own Mom and Dad had died, leaving the three of you to cope without them. That moment had to be one of the most heartbreaking in your life.
And the world went to war before you finished college. You had a chance to become a pilot, but contracted pneumonia, and had to give up that dream. Even though you would later say that God was protecting you, that most of the men who did become pilots were shot down and killed, I know that at the time, it probably didn’t seem like a blessing.
In the last few years with us, you spent time recalling the poetry you had memorized as a child. You loved that poetry. It spoke to you of the innocence of your own childhood before it turned tragic, and it spoke of the beauty that surrounds us all even in the midst of chaos if we will simply open our eyes and look around.
I’m not sure you would recognize the singer-songwriter Don McLain. He released his “American Pie” album in 1971, and one of the tracks was a ballad he wrote about the tortured genius Vincent VanGogh called Vincent. It painted a picture of a man who saw dazzling beauty everywhere, but who was ignored and unloved by the world around him. Listen to a few words from that song.
Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue
Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.
Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now.
For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left inside, on that starry starry night
You took your life and lovers often do
But I could have told you Vincent
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.
As one artist expresses the connection he felt with another, he uses word pictures that remind me so much of you. The use of the term, “Starry, starry night” is one. He, like you and I, shared an awe of the wonder of our world in the stars. And we like they, were frustrated that we could not express the love we had for each other.
But now I understand what you tried to say to me. Happy Fathers Day!
John Andrew Jr.