Celebrating Father’s Day with a Difficult Dad

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I know my Dad loved me and always wanted the best for me. He never, ever abused me. But as I grew older, when it came to nurturing a heart to heart relationship, he just wasn’t that into me.

When I was still small enough to sit in his lap he would read to me. And he would swing me in a big swing he made for me. For a season he made up wonderful bedtime stories about Broussard the Dragon who, when Dad lost interest, died tragically in a cave in. When I was older he would play the chess-like board game Camelot with me. (And usually slaughter me.)

But pretty much every night after dinner my petroleum engineer dad preferred to spend his time tinkering in his electronics shop. I could go out and talk to him in the garage, and he would explain to me how his gadgets worked, but he was not inclined to sacrifice his favorite pastime to spend all that much time with me.

In his defense, my dad came from a family of thinkers, not feelers. He lost his dad when he was 13. So he didn’t seem to know how to find his way into my world. I had to find my way into his.

Once I started my own family we connected less and less. I would call and if he would pick up the phone, he would exchange a few short pleasantries. Then he would say, “Here’s Mom,” and hand her the phone. When I asked him once why he didn’t want to converse more with me when I called, he told me, “I’ll get all the news from Mom.” The idea of building relational intimacy just wasn’t on his radar.

DSC00302 (1024x509)Last year when he died and I went to Texas for the funeral, I wrote his obituary and gathered up his favorite things to display on his memory table. I was feeling like I wasn’t one of them.

I asked my mom, “I’m trying to think of the ways that Dad showed me as an adult that he loved and valued me, but I’m having a hard time. Can you help me?”

After a long silence she finally responded, “Well, he always looked forward to going to visit you and spending holidays at your house.”

As I processed his loss and my grief over the past year, I finally concluded that was not the right question to ask about a man like my dad. All my digging was only yielding rocks. When I asked another question, “What legacy did my dad leave me?” I tapped into a much richer vein. In his uneven attempts to include me in his world he left me a greater legacy than either of us realized.

I share my reflections with you this Father’s Day in hopes that, if you had hard times connecting with your Dad, you can journey down a similar path to a sweeter remembrance of or relationship with him. Our difficult Dads have possibly given us more than we realize.

My dad loved organ music. He bought a church-size Hammond organ for our home and asked mom to find someone to teach me. He bought sheet music of his favorite hymns and wrote on them the dollar amount of the reward I would earn when I learned them. His provision and cheerleading launched me into a lifetime delight of learning and playing music–singing and playing guitar in a New Christy Minstrels-style folk group in high school, sorority song leader at UT (back when rush week featured live singing), directing music programs for Young Life, VBS, missions and church events, even directing Christmas cantatas.

My dad also loved Stan Freberg, a musical comedian whose records he played for me as a child and which I still enjoy to this day. The Weird Al Yankovic of the 50s. In fact, my dad had a great sense of humor. We laughed a lot in our home. To the extent I can help others laugh I like to think it’s part of his legacy to me, although I’m not nearly as sharp as Jack or Zach. Here’s Freburg’s send up of Mitch Miller and our Texas pride:

My dad loved to drive. When the spirit moved he would leave his electronics, stick his head in the back door and say, “Come on, let’s go for a ride!” And we would load up. Maybe stop for some pistachio ice cream, maybe just drive.

He loved great American road trips. Up the East coast, across Niagra and back down through the Midwest. Up California Hwy 1, across into Vancouver and down through the Rockies. In retirement my parents would set up a video camera on a tri-pod in their RV and record their drives. Back home they would actually watch them.

In the old days of fold-out maps he wanted my Mom to consult them and give constant status updates: How many minutes to the next town? What elevation are we? How many miles from our camp site destination? My Mom has the directional sense of a lemming. So at a tender age I took over the maps and he coached me on how to navigate our routes.

By the time I could drive, I felt confident navigating Houston traffic, and by the time I went off to college, I felt comfortable going anywhere a map could take me. Without realizing it, my Dad gave me the legacy of an adventurous spirit and the confidence I’ve needed to fly solo around the world, rent cars and get myself to speaking engagements in outer Michigan or lower Florida.

My Dad loved football. I was an only child. Having a girl instead of a boy didn’t slow him one bit from taking me season after season to our local high school football games. He explained the objective, the positions, the strategies, the referee calls. In a happy co-incidence our high school boasted one of the most famous running backs in the history of Texas high school (and UT) football. Each week Chris Gilbert tore up the turf and our Spring Branch Bears kept winning and winning. How could I not grow to love football?

Lest you wonder how much of a legacy this really was, it very much attracted my football-loving husband to me. It continues to bond us and many wonderful friends together after all these years.

In his own way, my Dad loved God. He didn’t pray with me much beyond giving thanks for our food. He didn’t talk to me about what God and his Word meant to us as we “walked by the way.” But he took me to church most every week. Even when my Mom went through hard seasons and didn’t go, Dad was steady. If it was Sunday we loaded up. It remained the habit of my heart through college and single years. As a pastor’s wife and Christian author, God only knows how much fruit has grown in my life from that unswerving commitment to simply show up in his house.

In the same spirit of commitment to God my Dad was faithful to my Mom and me. Even though theirs was a pretty “chocolate-chili-pepper” relationship, he kept his vows for 66 years. And every month he brought home his healthy professional pay check. There was so much I took for granted for so long—a nice home, a travel trailer and all those drive-around vacations, my own VW bug with a sunroof and an ooga horn in high school and a full ride at the University of Texas, even though my Dad was a Texas A&M grad. Bless him. It must have been painful to write those checks.

In 2009, at the height of the recession, Jack stepped away from his Senior Pastor position. Even with a very generous severance package I remember lying in bed at night and wondering what would become of us. It was the first time in my life I felt such hard, dangling-over-the-financial-abyss-by-a-thread fear. I realized that so many people face that fear continually and appreciated my Dad’s provision more than ever before. (btw…God provided a wonderful new church pastorate for Jack; I wish I had trusted him more.)

As we prepared for his funeral, moments after I asked my Mom to help me think of ways my Dad showed me that he loved me, I stepped into his closet and found myself inches away from a picture of us at the book signing of my first book. As if God was reminding me…

This Father’s Day I am so grateful for a Father who was there for me. Maybe not in the intimate way I Ionged for, but my Dad did show up for recitals, VBS programs, concerts, beauty pageants, graduation—he honored and celebrated me on my big days. Something we can take for granted but that cuts like a knife when Dads don’t show.

Mom thought of one more thing: My Dad prayed for me faithfully. All through the years. Even when he couldn’t string much of a sentence together any more, he could stun us with his prayers. That has come to mean more and more to me as I’ve come to understand the truth about prayer. “I strongly suspect,” says Dr. Peter Kreeft,“that if we saw all the difference even the tiniest of our prayers to God make, and all the people those little prayers were destined to affect, and all the consequences of those effects down through the centuries, we would be so paralyzed with awe at the power of prayer that we would be unable to get up off our knees for the rest of our lives.” I’m sure that if I could see all the results of those prayers I would see a vast legacy beyond measure.

Thank you, Dad, for all this and much more. Happy Heavenly Father’s Day. I look forward to an eternal future where we will enjoy the fullest and sweetest intimacy imaginable.

And thank you, Heavenly Father, for helping me to remember and treasure these things and more in my heart tonight. For supplying in my relationship with you an abundance of what I longed for in my relationship with my earthly Dad. And for supplying the father-needs of each friend and reader who turns to you with the same longings.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God! We take refuge in the shadow of your wings. We feast on the abundance of your house, and you give us drink from the river of your delights.

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8 thoughts on “Celebrating Father’s Day with a Difficult Dad

  1. What an excellent tribute to your Dad!! You now have me thinking in new ways about the legacy of my own father…. gone now for ten years. God bless you Lael. May He richly bless your ministry as well!

    • Thanks, Val. At our women’s retreat this year, our speaker’s focus was on legacy. It was so hard for me initially as I tried once again to process my relationship with my Dad. But as I asked God to help me see with his eyes it was a time of real breakthrough. I could have written much more.

    • Thank you, Sue. Tough to navigate all the conflicting emotions and loyalties. Your words mean a lot. I’ll email you privately w/ a question.

  2. Lael, what a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to your Dad! I love the focus on the part of his legacy you appreciated and could connect with! Thank you for sharing your heart and for this article of encouragement! You are missed here in Aggie country! 😉

    • Thank you, Diane. More on how God helped me focus on his legacy in my comment below. We take our struggles to the Lord Jesus and it’s amazing how he heals and restores.

  3. Everyone who complains about what their dad “didn’t do” needs to read this and be reminded of how our expectations, if given too much weight, can destroy what they “did do.” Great article and sweet tribute to a man who obviously loved you much.

    • Patty, I can’t imagine a lifetime of Fathers Days for my Dad or you, having both lost your Dads when you were young. Yes, those of us who have had difficult relationships with our Dads still had the blessing of relationships. It is part of the “all things” that God has worked together for our good. Can sound like a cliche, but it is a deep truth worthy of reflection and prayer.