Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he'd call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?
My eyes widen as I read each word. This poem–I feel like I wrote it. How could someone else capture my thoughts so perfectly? I feel raw. Exposed. I am sitting in a college classroom on a damp, dreary Fall afternoon, and this poem makes me feel warm, yet I have chills. This is how I feel about my father. This is what I have been trying to articulate in my mind for eighteen years. I think of all the gestures he did to show his love–silently, at times begrudgingly, but he did show his love in the mundane tasks of keeping house. And no one ever thanked him. We may have said the words as we dashed out of the car or grabbed whatever was in his hand, but there was never an exchange of thanks that involved eye contact and a firm hand shake or lingering hug. Affection was quick, obligatory.
And I DID fear the chronic angers of that house. There was always so much anger. It began with my parents and enveloped each person that existed in that small home–nine of us–ten if you include Anger, which certainly felt like another sibling living among us.
I will never forget the day I first came upon this poem. Freshman year at The University of Scranton. A survey literature course. Robert Hayden–my literary brother. It was this poem–Hayden’s words–that provided me with one of my first experiences of what language could convey. I was in awe that a few lines of verse could so profoundly summarize my relationship with my father. I credit this poem for being one of the reasons I became an English teacher. The written word can speak to a reader in many personal, powerful ways. The experience can be incredibly private and eye-opening, yet the reader need not reveal to the world that “this is me! These words are my own! I’ve had the same experience.”
I have gone on to teach that poem in my classroom, and whenever I do, I am reminded that somewhere in the room, there probably is a young man or woman (or ten) who sees themselves in these lines–who hears their own fears being echoed in the voice of the poet: “What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” That line has become sort of a mantra of mine as I have aged, as I have reflected on my childhood and my upbringing. What did I know? I knew my dad loved me, yes. He was a good man. He wanted to be a better man than he was, and he did love me. And yet, he was very lonely. Surrounded by his wife and seven children, but alone. And austere. His firm and unbending sense of discipline made him very austere.
My dad died eighteen years ago, when I was in my early twenties. I wish he got to know me better. I wish he was able to meet my lovely wife, and see his beautiful grandsons play. I wish he got to see me as a father. I think he would be different now. I know I am. I am not afraid. I no longer live in fear of the chronic angers that filled my childhood. But in my mind, I recall the blue-black cold of the rooms that hold the memories of my youth.
Flash forward twenty some years. The college freshman reading poetry is now a father himself. He wants to be a good father, but he fights the anger that has lived in him for so long. Indeed, it has subsided, but it still lurks. He loves his sons more than anything. He cannot help it. He knows this is the circle of life. A boy cannot understand his father until he is a father himself…I see now Dad, I do. I see how hard it must have been for you. I see that you were living in a much different time, a time when men were only worth the pay check they brought home–and yours never seemed to be enough. A time when feelings and emotions were never discussed, let alone understood. I see the man who was incredibly bright, but never had the chance to go to college. I know you loved us, but the pressures and chaos of that household were too much to bear. And as part of your legacy, I have inherited some of your struggles–as a husband, a father, a man.
I grapple with this often, almost daily. I know the kind of dad I want to be, the kind I set out to be every day, but then I see my frustration creep in, my impatience, my arrogance. Lately, I’ve been reminded of this innate struggle between father and son when dealing with my second born, Hayden (I do not think we arrived at his name accidentally.) Hayden and I fight–a lot. I know it is because we are so similar in personality. My friend Liz, over at The Kovies, told me that “God doesn’t give you the child you want; he gives you the child you need.” I now know that I needed Hayden. I needed him to see myself as a boy–difficult. Caring, loving, and sensitive, yes–but also difficult. I bear witness to my frustration with him. I am trying so hard to be present in his life, to show him my unconditional love. But he challenges my patience, and seems to bring out the worst in me sometimes. And yet, we love each other very much. I snuggle with him in his bed, and he takes walks with me and the dog. He knows I love him, and I am able to show it in ways that my father did not–could not.
In the past month, when I’ve tucked Hayden in at night, I’ve become frustrated by our exchanges. I’d say, “Good night, Hayden. I love you.” And Hayden would say nothing–NOTHING! At first, I tried to ignore it, or I would add a passive aggressive “I love you, too, Dad” before leaving his room. Still, no reply. One night, after no response, I implored,”Hayden, I said I love you.” “I heard you.” “You’re supposed to say ‘I Love you, too, Dad.'” “Sort of,” he says, head buried in his pillow. “Sort of?” I yell. “It means a little,” he explains–to his father, an English teacher. I walk out, incredulous. On another night, I try again. Still, no reply. “Hayden, I know you love me.” He shakes his head “No.” “Yes, you do!” Again, he shakes “No.” “Do you love Owen?” He shakes his head “No.” I feel comforted by this. “Do you love Mommy?” A big head nod “Yes.” So big of a nod, his chin almost hits the floor. I refuse to surrender. “Well, I love you Hayden, no matter what.”
In the past few weeks, we’ve made progress. Now, when I say it, he says “Okay.” That’s all. “Okay.” I leave his room frustrated, but I’m trying to be okay with “Okay.” Still, my mind reels: All I do to show this boy how much I love him every day. Not just the basics. I coach his baseball team (even though I suck). I volunteer in his classroom. I remember to buy his favorite cookies…How can he not know how much he loves me???? Then, it dawns on me. Not right away–it’s a gradual epiphany: Oh, I see. “What did I know of loves austere and lonely offices?” The role of a dad can be cold and austere regardless of the amount of affection we show our kids. It feels cold, because we are often the bad guy–the punisher, the disciplinarian. And lonely. So lonely. We love our children so much, yet watch them push us further and further away toward their eventual independence. What did I know? Not much, until I had children of my own.
Once again, I am comforted by the words of Robert Hayden. Decades later, his poem still beckons and consoles me. I am glad I realized this in time to celebrate Father’s Day. It is a day filled with mixed emotions. How does one celebrate a role that is so layered and confusing? How do I reconcile the past and the present? Well, this year, in honor of Hayden’s refusal to return my “I love you,” I thought of another poem–a song–that reminds me of my father. It is probably the most tender memory I have of my dad. When I was very young, about four, I recall sitting in the front seat with my dad, alone! No seat belt to tether me. Just me sitting next to my dad. Six brothers and sisters and I had Dad all to myself in his big, thick-cushioned, blue Chevy Nova. I remember driving with the windows down, the breeze mixing with the smoke of his cigarette, and he began to sing me a song:
You’ll never know just how much I miss you
You’ll never know just how much I care
And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you
You oughta know for haven’t I told you so
A million a more times, you went away
And my heart went with you
I speak your name in my every prayer
If there is some other way to prove that I love you
I swear I don’t know how
You’ll never know if you don’t know now …
On the rare occasion when I was alone with my dad, I would ask him to sing me that song. It only happened a handful of times, before I got too old to feel comfortable requesting it. Well, Dad, I didn’t know then. But I think I do now. And I wish the same for my son. Someday, Hayden. Someday, you’ll know. And I hope I’m around to bear witness.