“What does it matter what I do? I know you’re just going to tell me the same thing over and over. You’ll be disappointed in me and still classify me with dirt.”
I don’t try to stop the words coming out of my mouth. I have held them back so many times in the past, so many hard times in the past; I am done holding back. I am done shielding him. I am finished protecting his feelings. It is time to say what must be said.
The look on my father’s face is one of stern surprise. “I don’t classify you with dirt. Where did you get that idea?” He looks at me with angry, disappointed eyes across the dining room table we are seated at.
The rest of the family has long since deserted the scene, leaving us alone with our most recent “disagreement.” They know this raising of voices would either end with both parties upset, or, hopefully, at peace.
I look away, tears pressing at my eyes. I am desperate for him to get it. For him to understand me. But it never fails: he never does. “You make me feel like it.” I say it quietly. “I never make you happy.” I give him a look that is as close to a glare as I can get without crossing the line into the realm of disrespect, a line I am positive I see clearly, and have seen clearly all of my life. All of my twenty-nine years. “I’m not what you want—what you think I should be, and, for that, you just make me pay! Make me pay by withholding your approval, your encouraging words, your respect… You treat complete strangers better than you treat me!”
My father retorts, “I do not!”
“Yes, you do! Every Sunday at church!” A stupid, single tear escapes down my face. “You never hold back your encouraging words to someone at church. But, me, your own daughter, you hold back! It’s like you don’t even see how I try! You don’t see how I try to please you! How I have tried all these years to get your applause—it’s like ‘keep trying, maybe you’ll reach my high expectations for you next time’.”
I know I have just stepped directly on that line. My toes touch disrespect. My father’s eyes flash with defense.
“You please me!!” He barks back, angry that I said such things.
“Oh yeah? And when was the last time you read something I wrote? Are you embarrassed that I write? I have lots of people who can’t wait for the next thing I’m going to put out there, and my own father hasn’t read a single thing I’ve written since I was a teenager! Sounds like you’re trying to not encourage something… On purpose.” I wipe away my tears, my anger fading to what fueled it: simple hurt.
My father draws back, dark eyes searching for words. “Well—”
I shake my head, rescuing him from his loss, “I know I don’t have the career you think I should have, but I work hard! I pay my bills! Shouldn’t that at least please you? You taught me that! To be responsible!”
“I am proud of you for that!” My father throws in hastily.
“Yeah? Well, in the four years that I’ve held down my job, I’ve never once heard you say that.”
“Well, I thought you knew. Of course I’m proud of you for having the same job for four years.”
I wipe away another batch of tears, my voice full of defeat, “Then why don’t you say something? Why do you hold back?… Aren’t I worth the effort?”
To my surprise, my father’s eyes fill with distress, his voice lowers. “You’re worth it… I just…” He presses his lips together, and then says, “I don’t know how.”
I blink, not understanding. I wait for him to speak.
His voice is soft when he finally elaborates, “I didn’t have a dad to teach me that… And no one in my family said anything encouraging. Ever.” He looks away, uncomfortable with what he is sharing. “I guess I need to practice.”
I realize how vulnerable my father is being. This is big. I sniff back tears, my eyes fixed on the man that has been there all of my life. The man that has been to piano recitals, softball games, tennis matches, and recognition dinners. The man that has been my spiritual leader and covering, praying for me fervently as I have grown into a woman. He’s being truthful. Honest. Painfully out-there.
He meets my gaze, his eyes misty. “I don’t want you to ever feel like dirt. God made you more than that. You are a very special lady.”
I swallow hard, touched.
He tells me quietly, “I’m sorry.”
I tear up again.
We speak for awhile longer, but all I can remember that night are the two apologetic words, and how, wrapped within them, were the three words, “I love you.”