Letter to my Dead Dad

Earlier this week, I told you about the Art of Manliness and their handy guide “30 Days to a Better Man”. One of the challenges they laid out was to write a letter to your father. For better or worse, AoM argues, fathers are our first models of manhood, and the impact of their lives on ours is inescapable. So much goes left unsaid between fathers and sons and if we are to understand ourselves as men, it’s important to articulate what we’ve learned from the first man we ever knew.   What better way to do this than with a letter.  This is mine…

me, dad, and my younger brother jeff

Dear Dad:

Some people, one imagines, may be naturally dauntless and buoyant of heart, but with him, good spirits always seemed, far more admirably, to be the product of a strict program of self-improvement in his youth – he believed, like most truly modest men, in the absolute virtue of self-improvement – which had wrought deep, essential changes in a nature inclined by birth to the darker view and gloominess that cropped elsewhere in the family tree.

Michael Chabon wrote that, and it reminds me of you, although not because that’s how you were.   This is about a good man who battled the angels of his darker nature and beat them.  The best I can say of you is that you fought them to a draw.

“You’re not specific enough to be a person. You’re more like a vibe.”
To say this feels a tad blasphemous, in light of the noble legend that has filled the hole created by your death; intensely capable in that prairie farmboy way, blessed with a sharp wit, selfless, devoted, and wise.  There’s not a single aspect of that description that’s wrong, but strangely, it doesn’t feel right to me either.

There is a line in this movie,“The Limey” where one character tells another, “You’re not specific enough to be a person. You’re more like a vibe.” To the older five siblings you are a corporeal presence, one with definitive boundaries, delineated by actual experience: there was the time you drove across the country to get my sister and bring her home after her fiancé left her, or the time when you hired my older brother to work for you and then had to fire him when he screwed up.  These memories sit with them like old friends and occasionally colour my own.   Yet to me, you’re less an actual person than a series of charming anecdotes knitted together in the shape of one.   Consecrated by time and repetition, they form a picture that I know in my bones is at odds with the father I actually had, no matter how much I wish it was otherwise.

The family on my parent’s 25th anniversary – 1979.

I suspect you were cursed with a congenital darkness and for a long time you successfully kept it at bay, but at some point unknown to me and for reasons I can only grasp at, you gave up and retreated from the life of your family.  It may have happened before I was born, it certainly happened before I was old enough to understand the concept of “dad.”

Our interactions hinted at some essential goodness, an intuitive understanding of your commitment; you took care of things, and never once (even when you started having the heart attacks) did I feel you couldn’t. You met the textbook paternal obligations; pay for swimming lessons, get me to hockey on Saturdays, drive the family across the country in that RV – but underneath it all there was a suggestion of something deeper and possibly more sinister – an abiding turmoil that was never fully resolved.

Whatever it was, it seemed to summon all of your psychic energy and there was little left over for the rest of us. As I grew, little discussion passed between us, like we shared no common language, no way to express even basic emotions. It made you an imposing figure with which I shared pregnant silences in the basement as you divided your attention between hockey and crossword puzzles.

...you were a lighthouse, separated from the mainland, vigilant only in times of darkness.
You would tell people that your seven children think of you as wise, a perception borne out of 10 percent absolute truth, and 90 percent great PR on the part of our mother (your flaws were always a set up for a good joke).  You’ll be pleased to know your wife continues her campaign to this day.  I think every widow must, maybe to give all that time together some meaning.

To me, though, you were a lighthouse, separated from the mainland, vigilant only in times of darkness. I remember when I was fourteen, following your first heart attack. You turned to me after coming out of a coma and said, “I love you.” And then, perhaps to soften the shock of such a startling, unsolicited admission, you added, “I’d love you more if you got me a Coke.”

Moments like that make me feel like something of an ingrate.  I can’t say we were fully happy, but we were far from miserable. You never beat me, or mistreated me; what few words that passed between us were never harsh and I can’t think of a single occasion where we ever argued.  The only time you ever laid a hand on me was when I was three and I ran away – you spanked me once and never had to spank me again.

Most would say that’s more than fair. Not all that talkative, you were still as reliable and necessary to me as air, and every bit as invisible.

...you were still as reliable and as necessary to me as air, and every bit as invisible.
The thing is, it wasn’t enough that you do for me, you were supposed to show me how to do for myself. My car was always fixed, but not by me.  You built entire additions on our homes and yet, I can’t countersink a nail.  When I played hockey, you always tied my skates perfectly – now, I can never get them tight enough. Someone tries to run me over with their will, and I lack the strength of character to resist. Dad, there were lessons that needed to be learned which were never taught. I think the result is that I’m poorly equipped to fight the same dark angels that you faced and I don’t know the necessary codes to signal distress -  a sad consequence for me and a poor reflection on you. I can’t believe this is what you wished for me.

There is one thing I learned from you

Dad & mom on the day they got engaged – 1953

and this IS to stay remote, to hide myself in plain sight.  It’s not been an altogether bad thing – I suspect I’ve felt pain far less acutely than I might had I not been living with one foot out the door, bracing for departure in the same way you seemed to be.   I don’t know why you were like that; life with a demanding mother, or a demanding wife, perhaps… maybe the gnawing feeling of unfulfilled promise of which you were too embarrassed to speak.   I can only speculate and by the time it occurred to me to ask, you were already dead and there was little family tolerance for such conversation.   Regardless, this remoteness was a state to which we all grew accustomed and which I ultimately inherited.

When I left for university you said, “You’re leaving home just when you were getting interesting.” You said that to all of us when we moved out – I think of it as your understated way of saying you loved us. Maybe it was true, because I was developing a sense of humour and perhaps you could empathize with my more adult struggles. There seemed to be something for us to discuss; how else would have I known about the Tarzan principle (jobs are like vines – never let go of one until you have another in hand)?

So I suppose you were getting interesting too.  It was short-lived, though – you died before my thirtieth birthday. Perhaps I should’ve taken an interest sooner, but I was a kid, what did I know?  You had the benefit of wisdom and held back anyway.   Perhaps, there is something to gain from trying to understand why, maybe someday I will.

I’m not angry, or resentful.  You at least taught me to be practical enough to realize how unproductive such emotions are.   Moreover, I wonder if there isn’t some kind of lesson in the limited quality of your love, some kind of impulse; what you gave was a brief but lingering taste of something wonderful and that’s led me to try and recover it by collecting father figures in the same way people collect baseball cards.   There’s my Ex’s dad, Peter, a loving and curious man, engaged in the world and happy to fill uncomfortable silences. There’s also my friend Jon, who takes an odd kind of joy in his own basic frailty and its lessons.   Human frailty is just one of many subjects you were reluctant to discuss, so my life is richer for knowing someone like Jon.

Still, I’m here now, trying to be a better man.  Maybe it’s the view from hindsight, but I suspect this exercise would be largely unnecessary if you were more than just a benevolent spectre. You’re on the honour roll, because your constancy is something to be admired and I believe my siblings’ accounts, even if I didn’t witness them. I suppose every son picks and chooses the parts of his dad to emulate…my path is made harder by a basic mistrust of my own memory of who you really were.

For the time being, I laugh at the funny stories the family tells about you and I even tell a few of my own, in hopes that one day I will actually believe them. None of this keeps me from loving you.  In your way, I know you felt the same.



    • Danielle LaPorte

      nice one.

      • Chris

        Well, sometimes you have to punch holes in things, right?

    • Kristin

      I think I’ve sat down a dozen times trying to do the same thing and never gotten much out. Well done.

      • Chris

        Well, it’s been on mind lately, and then you read something, or see something, and it taps a vein. For me, it was watching a man in Haiti crying amidst the rubble of a building because his father was trapped underneath it.

    • Shannon

      A very honest & beautifully rendered letter. I hope to have the courage someday to write such a missive to my father. Thank you.

      • Chris

        I’d say it was no problem, but that’d be a lie.

    • Jason

      This is eerily similar to the relationship I had with my father before he died when I was 15. In some strange way it is comforting to know someone else shares these feelings and struggles to make sense of it all as I often do. I’ll admit this letter has made me do some soul searching of my own. Makes me want to be a better man too, and I commend you for putting it out there with such honesty.

      I am really enjoying your quest by the way, even though I thought you were pretty great to begin with.

      • Chris

        We’re all fellow travellers, J. You’re a good man who’s self aware enough to know he can better….that’s a great start.

        Thanks – I always thought you were kinda neat as well.

    • Curt

      I’m terrified of the day I’ll have to write this letter. Well done.

      On a lighter note, I see in your family picture (http://awkwardfamilyphotos.com/) that the boys have much lower necklines than the girls. The reasons and ramifications of that should be good for at least a couple of columns.

      • Chris

        Thank you, Curt. You’re like Simon Cowell to me now…when you praise something, I know you mean it.

        I was always a big fan of the plunging neckline as a kid…in hopes I may one day grow into the gold chains that go with it. Who knew that would go out of style?

    • Sima

      It’s reading these types of confessionals that make me go from liking someone to really loving them.
      Thanks for sharing your spill from within.
      Be gentle on your journey through the land of Reveal vs. Conceal.

      • Chris

        You mean to say I’ve known you all these years…and you only LIKED me?!

        I always step lightly, girl…thanks for reading.

    • kelly

      I’m stunned. Just stunned.

      I would like to sit on a park bench with you and a huge bag of caramels and just talk and talk and talk. I think I would learn so much about myself and the world.

      You’re writing rocks like bees have knees.

      To my reader, you go!

      • Chris

        I would absolutely love you to take you up on that, because I’d probably learn just as much.

        This is high praise, since I’ve been reading your stuff for a few months now, and it often makes me shivery. Thanks.

    • The Producer

      I was just imagining what it must have been like for your father… provider for seven children, living in a religious household in a small prairie town and I imagine the weight of expectation and responsibility could at times, be completely crushing.

      All this at a time (70′s) when average people were just starting to get divorced, quit their company jobs, actually giving themselves permission to forgo duty and pursue their own passions. It’s something we all take for granted now and I sometimes wonder if we’re not nurturing our own needs to death… but back then, to even think of these things was seen as inexcusably selfish at the very least and even sinful in some crowds.

      I bet there was a lot going on inside his head and at the time, it was the status quo to spare you of it.

    • Roberta

      Very brave of you my dear. I think it would do us all a world of good to sit and write such a healing letter. While it makes me think of my relationship with my own parents, more than that it makes me stop and wonder what my children will write to me one day. As I have said many times before, no one gives us a parenting manual with all the right answers so all we can do is hope that we are forgiven for the ones we get wrong along the way.

      • Chris

        Well, if parents are just making it up as they go along, then you’re certainly doing better than most.

        • Melanie

          I am speechless – but not, perhaps, for the reasons you might first think. For one, knowing Dad and our life, the quintessence of your insights have just catapulted my respect for your talent into the stratosphere. Secondly, my experience was the same. There. I said it. As one of the older 5, we, too were trying to create rain from clouds and didn’t quite possess the emotional technology – so we made it up. Not the experiences – those happened – but the perception created that an emotional dialogue was open between the older siblings and Dad would be a lie. I love him still. And The Producer is astute.

          • Chris

            Thanks Mel. I’m surprised to hear this, but perhaps you’re doing the same thing I do, I suppose.

        • Roberta

          You might want to ask a certain teenage boy who thinks my head regularly spins around whilst spewing tirades of insanity…LOL! Or better yet, ask him about the dodge ball and the life lesson he got from me on that one.

    • Brent

      Good on you Chris! A very well written and powerful letter. I’m actually reading your blog in between takes (yes I am actually working today…hooray for me!). I find myself immersed in your writing and I feel the emotion that went into it. I am enjoying this journey with you Chris Nelson and it has only just begun.

    • Kimba

      This took my breath away sometimes…like others that responded, this was and still is the reality of my relationship with my own dad.
      When I was growing up, my dad was like a distant star…I could see him, but no way could I get close to him. He was also there dispensing advice, taking us to our various lessons, but his aloof, and sometimes hard core style of parenting made me question everything I knew to be true when I got older. I was the first one in our family to say “I love you”… and incidently also the first to say to my dad (I have 3 other siblings that would probably agree about my musings)”I spent my life so far trying to live up to your standards because it never felt like I was enough”..and now know I always was. He grew up in impossible standards, and his immigrant father was more unreachable than him…I am sure it’s a genetic legacy…Do you know if your father’s father was this way too?
      What I am rambling towards here is that I am determined to change the course of our history, and ensure that while my dad is a brilliant man, and has raised 4 kids the best he could…that the emotional buck STARTS here. With me.
      I am blown away by your insight and honesty..
      I am looking forward to following your quest…

      Peace out!
      Kimba :P

      • Chris

        I feel you, Kimba. My dad wasn’t a tough-love sort of parent, nor did I feel like I was failing to live up to his expectations, mostly because he never really set any. He was just absent while present. My sister says he lived inside his head a lot, and she knows this because she does the same thing…you can be talking to her, and she will be completely oblivious to your presence because she’s somewhere else. Some people find ways to cope with the chaos in their life, and perhaps that was his. Not that I want to let him off the hook, though…I needed some cues as to how to act, and he rarely offered much in the way of guidance.

        That said, you’re absolutely right about owning your shit. In the absence of a coach to show us how to do it, we just have to play until we figure it for ourselves. It takes a little longer, and we come up with some impractical shortcuts, but we figure it out eventually.

        Thanks for reading!

    • Trackbacks

    • Trackback from PROJECT MODEL CITIZEN: Hangin’ with the OC | The Better Man
      Thursday, 4 February, 2010

      [...] it turns out, the OC  is fan of this blog (“loved your letter to your dad’).  Knowing about my year’s mission to become a better man, she’s actually came up with a [...]

    • Trackback from One Good Thing, One Bad Thing | The Better Man
      Tuesday, 4 May, 2010

      [...] probably why I couldn’t dismiss what she said out-of-hand; she sent me a note after reading the open letter to my dad. I quote: “This was so good it surprised me.  I always thought you were some jock [...]

    • Trackback from Mad Skills: Borrowing from your Playbook | The Better Man
      Thursday, 13 May, 2010

      [...] the tangents because I’m in the midst of one right now: a comment from a friend after reading my letter to my dead dad made me realize I was behaving like an asshole to my friends and didn’t know it.  That prompted [...]

    • Trackback from Carry on my Wayward Son… | The Better Man
      Thursday, 24 June, 2010

      [...] suppose we both share the blame for that.   As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was cursed with a crippling inability to express his feelings, an affliction made no easier [...]

    • Trackback from In Case I Forget to Mention it on Mother’s Day… | The Better Man
      Tuesday, 12 April, 2011

      [...] think part of my preoccupation with dad has to do with how removed he felt – not that he was absent, just not fully present. Perhaps all those words I’ve written [...]

    Your email is never shared.
    Required fields are marked *