These days when I talk to my father, he says I Love You. I do not have many memories of him saying that when I was younger, although I’m sure he did. Honestly, I only think he says it now as a response when I say it. However, my father says I love you in many other ways, I just needed to learn his love language.
Last Saturday I was sitting by the pool reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Anne talks about getting into the moment and seeing things for what they are, simple and pure and getting outside of ourselves.
“To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.” – Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird
Later that afternoon, as I was running, I stopped to do a few pushups and noticed a dandelion a few feet from the edge of the sidewalk. As I stood, I recalled Anne’s words and felt myself materialize back into the moment as if my consciousness was beamed down from some other planet. Or, felt my head come out of my ass. Next to the dandelion was a newly plowed field. I walked the length of the field as it ran parallel to the sidewalk, noticing how the plow had laid open the earth exposing roots and rocks that had—until recently—been buried in darkness.
As I reached the end of the field, I noticed the familiar pattern left by tractor tires. Patterns left by a dance between man and machine performed at the end of every field. As the tractor reaches the end of the field, the operator pulls back the throttle with one hand then quickly pulls another lever, raising the plow, then hits one of two rear brakes while spinning the steering wheel. Within seconds, the tractor spins 180 degrees as the entire process is reversed—throttle up, plow down—as it heads the opposite direction—the plow letting out a sigh upon entering the earth once again. It is not easy, and it takes practice. I know, my father taught me this dance.
My mother taught me how to throw a baseball, slide into second base, and build a tree house. My father was around, but was always working. He built us a brand new house around the time I was born in 1970. My father worked construction but had always wanted to farm. So when I was five years old, he sold the new house and moved us into a run-down old farm house in the middle of the country. During the day he still worked construction and would farm at night and on weekends. We had some good years, but in 1984, we were forced to sell the farm. I still remember the auction, standing there watching strangers carry off all our stuff. My mother told me years later, that was the first time she ever saw tears in my fathers eyes. I can’t imagine how that must of felt for him… standing there watching his dreams go to the lowest bidder.
All my memories of a child growing up were on that farm. I have a sister who is two years older than me. You learn how to get along with each other when there isn’t anyone else around to play with. We had a few cows, some pigs, chickens, and even a fawn we named Spot that hung out with the cows. That old farm house was so cold in the winter, my mother would heat up bricks on the wood burning stove, then wrap a towel around them and place them in the bottom of our sleeping bags to keep our feet warm. When it was really cold, we would all sleep in the dining room around the wood burning stove. I have a memory of my fathers butt in the air as his head and torso were stuck through a hole in the dining room floor trying to un-freeze the water pipes with a blow torch.
To sell a new house and move into a “fixer upper” took a lot of courage. I recently told my father how much courage that took—to follow his dreams. His response, “dumbest decision I ever made.” I said “at least you gave it a shot! I admire that.”
Several years ago as I went through a lot of reflection of my childhood, I decided my father didn’t love me enough. After all, it was my mother who taught me how to throw a baseball, my father was always working. If I wanted to spend time with my father, I had to be where he was, which was usually on a tractor. I was amazed that the only great memory I had of my father and I was when he surprised me on a trip into town to buy me a motorcycle. Yes, something material is what I remembered. Wow.
As I’ve learned more about myself as a spiritual being, I’ve learned to accept the way others communicate. From the prayer of St. Francis, “to be understanding rather than understood.”
It is up to me to learn my fathers love language. All those years he was working, he showed his love in different ways. I can see it now. Teaching me how to drive a tractor, taking me with him to the sale barn on Sundays, attending my sporting events when he could, making sure we had a home and food on the table. I look back now and realize he showed me love the only way he knew how. And he showed me a lot of it.
Sometimes I wish my father and I could talk about deep emotional things… you know, feelings. When I try he usually says something like “hey, come check out the boat, I finally got the motor back together.” But that’s OK, I understand what he’s saying.
I love you too dad.
Update July 2010: Goodbye for Now Dad
Photo credit: Steve Kay