The Dad I wish I knew

I looked up to my dad, literally. To the point it strained my neck. He was well over 6′ tall and barrel chested. People called him Big Dave. He had a big deep laugh to match, and he laughed easily. I recall many nights after being sent to bed hearing his laugh down the hallway. Sometimes I couldn’t help but want to see what was so funny. I could sneak to a spot behind a partial wall, his back to me. He was watching Jonny Carson and laughing histerically. I listened to the monolauge and didn’t find any of it funny. I shrugged my sholders and went back to bed. 

His legs were equally long and I remember wanting to go anywhere he went. Which meant almost running. He didn’t slow down his stride for my little legs, if I wanted to come along I had to keep up. To this day I still naturally walk fast. I’d often come along to his job sites when he was a project manager in commercial construction. He never dumbed down a conversation for me to understand, so most of what he showed me went over my head. As I got older though I could read a blueprint and visualize the project. From my bedroom I designed a 3D scale model of our house using cardboard, paper, and colored pencils. I gave it to my dad and I think it was the first memory I have of feeling he was proud of me. (that feeling would be few and far between in my life). He took it to work and showed his entire office. I think he kept it on display at his desk. It was then I decided I wanted to be an architect. My dads response was an attempt to be honest but it became discouragement in my head. “Oh Honey, women architects don’t really exist, and they would have a hard time proving they are capable.”

There were suttle, and not so suttle, reminders throughout my life that I was suppose to be a boy. My name was to be Micheal. I was adopted in 1968 and choosing the sex of a child was no different than if my parents had given birth to me. You had a 50/50 chance. My parents had already adopted by sister 2 years earlier and my dad wanted a son. I think he got as close as he was going to get by having a tomboy. Close but no cigar.

I got in trouble a lot at family gatherings, much in part to the help of my male cousins. We egged a mortuary on Easter, my Uncle’s mortuary. Spent the rest of the day sitting in a corner. Ruined many a pretty dress and tried often to ditch the girlie shoes, neither were good for climbing. At age 6 I tried to climb the side of a vintage train now derailed at a local park. While it was meant to be played on climbing the front half probably was not. It was the end of the school year, I just had a birthday, we were celebrating at a Girl Scout picnic, and I saw a challange. I made it half way before my girlie shoes failed me, I still have the scar above my eye to prove it. After being rushed to the hospital in the back of a VW squareback, blood running down my face, my mom called my dad to get the insurance information. After she expained to my dad what happen all he could say, “what the hell’d she do that for? I just bought her a bike!”

That bike was exactly what I wanted for my birthday. Purple, my favorite color, with a basket and a banana seat. I was determined to ride it. Not just because learning to ride a bike is a whole new right of passage but also because I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. Much to the disagreement by my mom, my dad and I set out immediatly to teach me to ride. Eye patch and all.

My dad was a meat and potatos kinda guy, a mans man. He grew up on a farm in rural Oregon the oldest son of school teachers. He loved to duck hunt, fish, BBQ, and watch football. Usually with the cheapest beer possible in his hand. He showed me his hunting rifle, but he never took me hunting. It went without saying hunting isn’t for girls in his opinion. Most summer vacations were weekends spent with my moms side of the family because my grandparents had a beach house big enough for the whole clan. So those few summers we had a trip with my dads side really stick in my mind. I remember camping at a lake in central Oregon and catching my first fish. “you catch it, you clean it” my dad said tossing an emty can into the back of the boat as he chuckled. It was fine by me, my sister on the other hand made no further effort to catch any. I didn’t even like fish, but I was loving this time with my dad. Even at a young age I knew time was valuable, I just didn’t know why.

Of course Big Dave could not handle seeing his little girl cry. Especially if it was over something emotional as oppossed to falling down and scraping your knee. He would react like if he touched you surely you’d shatter into a million pieces. So instead he’d kinda pat you from an arms length and say “oh please, please don’t cry, honey” Wishing he knew where he could just stick a bandage. Trying to get you to laugh was his other option. Which I admit sometimes worked.

He was a big teaser, loved practical jokes. Especially on kids. Any new unsuspected child in our house was like a new playmate for him. “wanna play 52 card pickup?” I think he loved our sleepovers with a houseful of girls to tease and slightly frighten. Much to the humiliation of my sister he’d play a trick using his false tooth. Telling them he had a magic trick he’d smile, close his mouth, push the fake tooth up to the roof of his mouth, and smile again. He ate up the gasps and calls to “do it again Mr Warren, do it again!” When boys started coming around to walk me to school my dad liked to answer the door. It had a window that stopped at his chest, he would lean forward before opening it say “what do you want?” as loud and deep as possible. Later in life he told me he did it so that if the boy answered him and didn’t run off he must really like me.

The first, and maybe only, time I saw my dad cry I was around 12. It was way out of character for my dad to volunteer to drive me on my paper route. The local paper was delivered in the late afternoon and it was the time of year it gets dark early. I didn’t mind the offer, it was pouring rain. We did my whole route making small talk or sitting in silence. When we got to the last street and down to a couple papers I looked at my dad and in the dark could see he was crying. “Are you ok?” I asked. He took my hand and started to explain that he was leaving my mom. He couldn’t take her alcohol abuse any longer but he was so worried my sister and I wouldn’t think he loved us if he left. For the 1st time in my life I was offering him comfort and reassurance everything would be ok.

I eventually moved in with my dad after my parents divorced. I’m not sure my mom ever got over it, but for the first time I stood up for what I wanted and knew it would be healtier to live with him. He leased a small farm and started to raise sheep and a few chickens. He never encouraged me to be involved. In fact he’d get other farmers sons or 4H boys to come help. He only asked me once when he was going out of town to feed and gather the eggs. Which I somehow managed despite being a girl. Im honestly not sure why he never included me, I had my own interests. We would mainly have small talk when he was around. He spent most nights at his girlfriends. I liked being alone. It was no bonding moment, that’s for sure.

I went on to get a full scholorship for college and never finished my 1st year. I had my first child when I was 20 and single. For many years I was ungrounded and free spirited. I quit a good paying job to try and save a failed marriage. Later leaving me poor and now a single parent of 2 kids. I’ve given my dad plenty of reasons to be disappointed in me. But I think I’ve given him more reasons to be proud of me. I just wish I could have heard him say so.

I grew up with a lot to be greatful for, but what I didn’t grow up with was encouragement. My dad called it the school of hard knocks. It wasn’t his fault, it was generational and how he was raised. Men did’t talk about their feelings easily. Life was all about getting that job and taking care of the family financially. As times changed and I became an adult I’d always wished for a real converation with my dad. One that felt like two adults talking, not father to child. I wanted to no longer feel intimidated, to be heard. I should have asked him questions stuffed in the back of my mind and not feared the answer.

By the time I was growing into my voice, my dad was dying. The short window of opportunity to talk adult to adult was fading and I cancelled all plans to travel that year and watched cancer take over. He was no longer Big Dave. He was frail, weak, and losing. I told him all I wanted to know was if he was ever proud of me and he mumbled “maybe you’ll get your wish.” He was heavily medicated for pain, and didn’t make a lot of sense. It was the last thing he ever said to me.

When I listen to people discuss the details of their estate and what they can leave their kids. I say leave them a letter, write down everything good about your kids and don’t wait til your dead to give it to them. How your child thinks you see them affects them for their entire life. Don’t make them second guess, don’t make them ask. Share, communicate, listen. Because you may not be the best dad in the world, but you are their dad, and whether you realize it or not, they probably look up to you.


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