Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why I'm Thankful for Dad

I wasn't sure until a couple of days ago that I wanted to put up a Thanksgiving post for this blog. For awhile, it didn't really feel right, since my main interests are literacy and autism, but as the holiday approaches, I find that I have to do this. Until just a few years ago, this holiday really meant nothing more to me than having to pretend to listen to people I didn't really like while eating food I absolutely hated. Now,though, I'm finally starting to understand why it is important to reconnect to those people who only show up around this time of year, and because of that, I have to say that I'm really thankful.

I'm thankful because of Dad, whoshowed me how a family is supposed to work, and I'm thankful for the family now that I understand it. We've never talked about my autism, but I can tell that he knows that I'm different. He used to get angry when I didn't automatically catch on to or live up to the expectations that other people took for granted, but over the last few years, he's made a real effort to understand me and to step into the role of a mentor.

Even though we never really got close until I was about 25, Dad has become the most important person in my life other than my partner Elizabeth. In the last 5 years, he has taught me how to manage my personal finances better, he's coached me about accountability and job interviews both, and he's even sat me down to talk about my phone etiquette. He helped me with the down payment on my house, and he went through the prospects that Elizabeth and I were looking at and helped us to be sure that our first purchase wouldn't turn into a money pit. He was even there with me at closing when I was a haggard mess, helping me to stay focused on each individual task as we went through the paperwork. He was the only one other than Elizabeth who put two and two together and realized that I didn't change jobs every few months because I was lazy, but that I really didn't know how to hold onto them in the long term. He was and is patient.

Our relationship wasn't always that way. When I was in college, I know he thought that I looked down on him. I never did, but I was proud of the fact that I was in college, and I know that sometimes it felt like I was rubbing his nose in the fact that he never got to go. I also know that when Elizabeth got really sick and had to drop out of school, he didn't know what to make of my constant presence at her bedside. I could tell that he was impressed that I had enough of a sense of commitment to stay with her through a year of hospitalization and brain surgery, but I also know that it infuriated him when I got lonely and crawled into a bottle for two or three weeks at a time. Still, as the years passed and we both aged, I outgrew my punk behaviors to an extent, and he was there to help.

I wish that he would have known me when I was really young. My childhood was a painful time in my life—so much so, that I have a hard time remembering it as the past. My memory is so vivid and the emotions from that period are so raw that for me, to attempt to access those memories would be to relive them. Still, I have to think that if he'd been there and he'd seen what happened, he would have felt honor-bound to do something about it. Dad is an occasionally irascible man, but he is a man, and everything I know of honor and duty I learned by watching him.

I know for a fact that if he had met me before I turned nineteen, that I would have matured much more quickly and my life would have had much more focus. During my teenage years, I was basically stuck raising my brother and my sister. My mother was out of the picture—she wanted to be part of our lives, but she was so delusional that all of us felt that we were in danger when we had to be alone with her.

My father worked hard to make a living, but he felt like he could take all of the at-home responsibilities for granted, and if we didn't handle the house perfectly and stay out of his hair, then my father would throw the most infantile, violent temper tantrum that most people have ever seen. Even my own bouts of self-injury during my meltdowns have nothing on the kind of self-absorbed rage that still emanates from my father to this day whenever he feels obligated to put his own needs aside and to consider other people.

The day I first started to respect Dad was the day he met my father. Dad talked to him for ten minutes and then quietly told Elizabeth that he had no honest intentions in his entire mind. I know that if he would have been there when my father was buying himself big screen TVs and pool tables, that he would have made sure that there was a little money set aside to help me with college. At the very least, Dad would have held my father to his word when he promised to pay my room and board, instead of letting him leave me with a $2500 past due bill and a block on my student account that would keep me from continuing to take classes until it was paid.

I stopped going to my father's Thanksgiving shortly after I met Dad, and it took a few years, but spending time with his family really made the holiday mean something to me. This year will be the first year in almost a decade that Elizabeth and I won't be out at her parents' house, drinking Miller Lite and listening to Dad tell stories about his motorcycle trip.

Nothing bad happened, it's just that this year we have to do something a bit different. We'll be back at Dad's table next year, and I'll get to have ham and potatoes and buffalo wings for Thanksgiving, because Dad knows that I hate turkey and he wants everyone to have a good time.

This year, though, I have to head north to see my little cousins. Their dad is a contractor in Afghanistan, and he won't be able to be in-country for Turkey Day. Last year he was abroad too, but my mother's side of the family was having a big get-together and they took care of my aunt and cousins.  This year, they've gone their separate ways. On top of that, my aunt Missy recently suffered a spinal trauma and she can barely move around and handle her daily activities. So, that leaves Elizabeth and I to go north and help my grandmother put a dinner on the table for my cousins.

Because that's what families do. AndI know that because of my Dad.

Tonight, though, I'm thinking about him. I really wish that I could go see him for the holiday, but he and I both know that it wouldn't be right if I did. The family has to come first, because it's not important whether I have my way. It's about duty, obligation, and putting the younger people first. It always has to be about those three things, or we've lost sight of our reason for coming together this week.

I'm lifting my mug of beer to Dad tonight, and I'm asking everyone who finds this to do the same thing. Not just for my Dad, but for all Dads. And not just for the guys who are Dads and fathers, but for the guys who choose to be Dads for the rest of us. Guys who know that not all fathers are fit to be Dads, and who are willing to go out of their way to make up for that. Even if it's only for one person.