In honor of Father’s Day, I want to share a story about my Pop, Tony, because sharing a story connects me to him.
As my mind flipped through my mental Rolodex, one story kept coming back. Other stories were funnier (Like the time he surprised me and my friends in a wedding reception parking lot, smoking pot out of a makeshift Coke can. Instead of chastising us, he just inserted himself into the circle and waited his turn). Other stories were more electric (Like the time I had my right fist cocked, on the razor’s edge of unleashing years of my anger to his chin, while the stunned neighbors looked upon us in the backyard). And other stories were more obvious (Like the wonderful, rare occasions where he’d join me out by the garage, shooting baskets with his Felix Unger-style-leg-kick, and we’d connect over a friendly game of HORSE).
But this little story… well, it just seems poignant to me. And in the process of writing this, I appreciated my dad even more as a man and a parent.
* * *
I was 20 years old. Home from college for the summer. I spent the morning getting all of my wisdom teeth yanked from my head. Mom was out of town and so it would be just me and Ole Tone Bones back at the house. As he drove me home from the doctor, I still couldn’t feel most of my face. Little streams of blood mixed with drool oozed from the stitched up holes in my mouth, spoiling my shirt with pink stains.
He glanced over at me as he drove. Caring. But not concerned.
When we got home, he set me up on the couch and turned on the Yankee game. Then he said he had some errands to run and took off. He returned soon after with a London Broil, some potatoes, and a six-pack.
“You getting hungry?” he asked from the kitchen.
“You mean for steak? Dad, my jaw feels like Tyson hit me… I don’t think…”
He was already prepping. Steak was his specialty.
I said no more. It was no use. I rehearsed the old story in my head one more time.
He’s not paying attention to me. He doesn’t care.
I resigned myself to suffer in silence. I’d just scrounge in the fridge and find something soft to eat later. I slunk deeper into the couch, returning to the Yankees.
From there I heard the microwave whirring for the potatoes. I heard the aluminum door bang shut as he exited the house. I heard the loose wheels of the grill squeaksqueaksqueak as he dragged it to his favorite cooking spot — out of the sun, beneath the giant pine tree in our driveway. I couldn’t help but notice that he stood just a few steps from where we’d nearly come to blows just a few months earlier.
I rose from the couch and watched him through the window. Manning the grill. Silent. Purposeful.
He cooked the steak for himself, sure. He loved steak. But he cooked the steak for me, too. Because this is something he did well. This was my father showing me his love. I know this now because it’s what I do when I make my kids eggs and bacon in the mornings.
My father re-entered the kitchen, announcing triumphantly, “We got ourselves some mighty fine eating Sonny Boy!”
I still wasn’t having any of his nonsense. Chewing a steak with bleeding stitches and tender teeth is a just a very bad idea. Anyone with a drop of sense left in their heads knows that. Still, I couldn’t help but notice how good the meat smelled…
My dad cut the meat into strips. He set a plate in front of me, left, and returned with a beer.
“Here, this should help with the pain…” he said, handing me the bottle.
Oh, fuck it, I thought. Hot, juicy, and delicious, the first bite brought tears to my eyes. Better not use the molars too much. Take it slow. Wash the blood down with beer.
We ate watching the game together, the silence only broken when he asked me how I liked the steak. I told him it was great. Because it was. Just like the all of the steaks he cooked for me over the years.
After the first few bites hit my belly, the world became a sunnier place. Yes, my teeth still hurt like hell. But with every bite, I felt stronger. And the cold beer hit the spot. This was good. Very good, in fact. Together we were being men. Something new in our relationship. And on top of it all, by ignoring doctor’s orders, I felt the wonderful rebellion of being a man. With my dad. Fuck you and your candyass rules. We don’t need ‘em here. We got steak and beer instead…
But it wasn’t until I started writing this that I realized why I remembered this particular day…
Having a few years of fatherhood under my belt, I can see the reality of my relationship with my father through a different lens. In fact, I don’t know if you get to see through that lens fully until you become a father. Specifically, I now see and appreciate how my father cared for me without being concerned about me.
Now, it took me a couple decades to make this distinction between caring for and being concerned about… Growing up, I equated being concerned with love because this is how I saw all the other fathers behaving towards their sons. The other dads were concerned about their kids’ grades. Concerned about their athletic prowess. Concerned about their curfews. Concerned about their friends. Concerned about the drinking and drugs. Concerned about whether they were following the rules of polite society. And certainly, this made sense to me. Dads are supposed to be concerned… Right? So I spent most of the time that my dad and I shared on this earth interpreting his lack of concern and yes, his indifference, with a lack of caring.
But I just couldn’t see it back then. I couldn’t see how they’re not remotely the same thing. I just didn’t know what I didn’t know…
Today, reflecting on the man I’ve become, the father that I am, and the life I’ve created for myself, I know my father’s approach to be his greatest gift to me. My dad saw me as strong. He saw me as intelligent. He saw me as capable. And probably a whole lot of other cool things that I’ll never know. He fed me a steak because he knew I could handle it, even when I did not. He didn’t see me as needing his worry. And there is great power is seeing your children this way, for both the parent and the child.
While some might argue that concern is a form of love, it’s not.
Concern is fear. Caring is love. Polar opposites. Concern always feels heavy for all involved; caring always feels lighter.
Concerned fathers have concerned children who become concerned parents. That’s not who I will be toward my children. That’s not the legacy I will pass on to them. A lot of society wants to tell me — and in a very logical voice — all the reasons I should be concerned about my kids and their future. I don’t really have the bandwidth to listen or argue too much though. Too busy with the steak and the beers.
Seeing my children as they are — strong, intelligent, capable — has them continually rising to meet the truth of who they really are. That’s what we all do. We meet the expectations of the atmosphere we’re in.
In my house, we don’t try to control the future by worrying about it. We choose to bask together in the freedom of knowing that it will all be good instead. There’s simply no room for concern here. It’s crowded out by all the other wonderful stuff of life. And it’s all only going to get better from here, for all of us.
Knowing this? Knowing it in every cell of my awareness?
This seed of this power came from my father. Tony. By showing me concern is optional and setting me free.
It is his greatest gift to me.