“Hey dad, how ya doing?” I said trying to hold back tears. I don’t cry.
“I was about to ask you the same question.” he replied.
I sighed, “How come it seems like I only see you when I need to talk?” I hadn’t even realized it until right then, but it was a legitimate question.
He grinned like the cat that swallowed the canary. Something he used to say when I was a kid. “Is there a better time? I could come back, but then I might catch you with your new friend and I wouldn’t want to embarrass her.”
I laughed out loud. “You’re becoming a dirty old man pop. Does mom know you talk like that?”
“I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise her, but let’s keep it to ourselves just in case.” I love when my dad smiles like that. His face gets round, his eyes squint and all 6 foot 3 of him radiates warmth. I remember when I was young thinking how could someone that big and strong, be so gentle? Maybe that’s why I was able to talk back so easily growing up. I knew somewhere deep inside that no matter how mad he got, he would always keep me safe. He always loved me.
“So what’s on your mind?” he asked.
I looked away feeling a little ashamed, “Well, to put it simply…I can’t seem to tell anymore whether I’m happy.”
“I see” he replied as a matter of course. I heard the words “go on” but he never actually said them.
“I love my girlfriend, I have a pretty cool job and I make enough money, so why am I so unsure of all my choices? Why am I not satisfied?” I was spitting out my words hurriedly as if I were running out of time.
“I don’t know. It sounds like you’ve got everything in order. Why do you think?” the kindness in his voice was astounding and I couldn’t match it. I decided to get annoyed instead.
“How the hell should I know? I mean, is everything the way I thought it would be…no, but I’ve still got a pretty great life. There are people who really suffer out there. What’ve I got to complain about?” I was suddenly acutely aware that my voice was raised. I hadn’t seen my dad in a while and I was spending our time together whining like a baby. When I looked back at my father his smile had faded a bit and a look of concern was replacing it. I must’ve looked like I didn’t know what to say, because he made it clear that as always, he was there to help.
His smile returned, “Your mother used to tell me that you would play in your room for hours by yourself after school, perfectly content to be left alone. When you were older; somewhere around the age of 10, you started lashing out. You became fiercely independent and very angry. Some people said that your behavior wasn’t normal, but I always believed that you were just frustrated with yourself.”
His easy manner calmed me, “What are you saying dad, that I’m being too hard on myself?”
“I’m just reminding you of some things you may have forgotten.” He answered in a way that demanded my attention. “You were born with a handicap. I thought it would help to put you into every sport we could think of, but you still had to work twice as hard as anyone to try and keep up. You learned from a very early age that if you didn’t push yourself, you would fall behind. I always thought of that as a strength that would help you through your life, but now I wonder if it’s hurting you.”
The memory of endless swim meets, basketball, baseball and soccer games came flooding back. The consistent 3rd place ribbon or the predictable “dedication” and “sportsmanship” trophies that sat semi-proudly on my bedroom desk were details that had drifted into the background of my memory. I would’ve killed for an MVP.
“I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself or make up excuses,” I said.
“I’m not saying you should’ve. There were plenty of people who had it way tougher than you. What I’m telling you is that life is not about crossing a finish line or completing a checklist of things you should own or should’ve done. You can’t judge yourself that way.”
“I know dad…I do, but I can’t help feeling like I’m missing out on something. Every relationship I’ve ever had has ended and I’m sure I’ll figure out a way to screw this one up.” I was starting to feel sorry for myself again. “I’ve given up so much for a career that never happened. At this point I don’t know if I’ll ever have kids and yet I’ve managed to keep myself thousands of miles away from the family. I just don’t know what the hell I’m doing anymore.”
My father closed his eyes smiled and shook his head. The he took a deep breath and said, “Do you smell that?”
“Smell what dad?” I was thoroughly confused.
“Just breathe son. Breathe…it’ll be gone before you know it.”