An Open Letter to my Dad on His 80th Birthday
I don’t know if I have told you this often enough, but you are my hero. It’s not because you’re a soldier or because you used to go to work with barrettes in your hair and glittery stickers on your work shoes or even because you would watch videos and read books (long before the age of YouTube) to learn how to fix my hair in intricate and interesting ways. You are my hero because you were there—all day every day during the summer and every day after school. You weren’t just physically present but emotionally and mentally as well. You never checked out of the Dad job.
You made sure that, starting at a young age, I had a connection with my past. I knew my grandfather and his brother better than any of my other friends knew their family and some of my favorite childhood memories include the generation before you. When they were gone, you continued to tell me stories. You took me to Indiana to see the farm where your dad grew up and to make connections with your cousins--and they have been some of the best and most important influences in my life.
Growing up, you made our house the place to be for sleepovers. I’m pretty sure you knew that I would never feel comfortable sleeping anywhere else, with only a few exceptions, so you always made it fun for my friends to come over. When I was little, you bought season passes to the old movie reruns at the theater for you, me, and one of my friends. This made our house pretty popular with my classmates--meaning that I never suffered from being an only child living on a farm outside of town. There were plenty of friends around. When I was older, you found other ways to entertain us, from driving us through the fields (the best and most beautiful “wide open spaces” any of my friends had experienced at that point) to taking us on adventures around Missouri. My friends still love you almost as much as I do and when I talk to them, they honestly care more about asking how you are than how I am.
You raised a whole class of us as part of an amazing community—a community that you made possible for me. I know that there were times when you wanted to quit teaching, but you kept at the most thankless job I have ever witnessed so that I could get a great education for free. I owe everything that I am to those ten years at St. Pats—and you made it possible. Not only did you make it possible, you also made it easier. For a socially anxious, awkward kid who now understands that I’m probably on the “spectrum,” I know that I was only able to flourish because my dad was down the hall and my mom was across the parking lot. You made me incredibly safe.
During the summers, we spent most of our time together, tinkering in the computer lab and installing new software, updating things. Because the computer lab and the library were together, I had instant access to every book I could possibly want, and you always made sure I could access anything the library didn’t have. You read all the books I was reading, from American Girl and Baby Sitter’s Club to Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter. We would talk about the books, the characters, the plot development. You told me about how Molly McIntyre’s childhood was similar and dissimilar to your own. You helped me critique and form opinions about literature starting at the age of five. You always made sure I had something to read and a whole pile of books waiting to be read as well. It’s probably your fault that I now own almost 1500 books, but it’s an addiction that I’m grateful for.
You pushed me when it came to academics—sometimes so much that I hated you for it. A “B” on my report card was never acceptable and I remember clearly when my history teacher had to explain to you that the "A-" wouldn’t be the end of my chances to get into college. When I got into Notre Dame, you told everyone you saw that your kid had a full ride to ND and embarrassed the shit out of me while doing so (especially when we were in the hospital and you told every nurse that walked in, even if you had already told them). I know that you do the same thing now, telling people that I’m in a PhD program. I’m not going to lie, sometimes I think about dropping out—but I know how much my success academically brings joy to you and Mom, so I tough it out and remember that this is my dream, too.
When I told you and Mom that I wanted to be a minister, you never questioned me. Even though you both knew from experience how the Catholic Church treats women in ministry, you believed in me and supported me. When I was tired and overwhelmed and crying, you told me that God had a plan. When I had to leave ministry, you never judged me (when there were plenty of people—even in our family—who did). You told me you were proud of me getting into a PhD program and that I would be a good teacher. You believed in me when I didn’t have any faith left for myself.
We spent most of my childhood on our own and that was really hard for me. You knew that I was grateful for you and when I would be upset, you never took it personally. When Mom and I fought, you always defended her. You loved me the best way you knew how.
You introduced me to all the things you’re passionate about. My love for science fiction and Star Trek are because of you. You taught me how to build a computer, how to maintain it, and how to use a ghost program to make 50 computers identical. You tried to teach me cursive, but your handwriting is terrible so I had to rely on Mom and my teachers. You taught me how to drive when I was nine years old as we drove through the pasture and I managed to gracefully not hit any cattle. You gave me my love for growing things, farming, and livestock. You lit a desire in my to be a farmer, but then challenged it and dreamed of something better for me. You encouraged my interest in language and spent a lot of money on resources to help me learn Spanish (which I’m still working on mastering).
I know that life hasn’t always been easy for you and raising me was a lot of work. I know that you still had (and have) nightmares and struggle with depression and PTSD. I know that you have lived an extraordinarily full life, filled with sacrifice and adventure, grief and joy.
I love that you have shared your stories with me. I only watch war movies with you (and no one else) because you always take the time to tell me your own stories when the movie is over. I loved reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, because it helped me understand what it means that you were a green beret, and then talking it over with you. I love when we talk about something I’m learning in school (like in my Cold War class), because you can give me the inside scoop on what life was really like before you even dreamed I would exist. I hate that we talk so infrequently and that these days you mostly listen while Mom and I talk on the phone, but I know that when you talk too much you end up coughing and in pain. I love the sound of your voice—it’s been my favorite sound since before I was born. I love coming home and sitting with you and talking the day away or watching Star Trek episodes or M*A*S*H*. I love playing with the drafting pens you have given me and every time I look at them, I imagine a twenty year old version of you carrying them through the jungle, making signs by hand.
Dad, I know that you miss me every day. I miss you, too. You’re my first and best friend and I wish we lived closer to each other. I know that you’re happy that I’m so happy and you’re proud of me—something that means more than you understand. I just want to tell you thank you. Thank you for being a full-time dad. Thank you for spending my entire childhood with me, never missing anything if you could help it. Thank you for raising me and helping me become the person I am. Today, on your 80th Birthday, I just want to tell you that I could not have asked for a better dad. Given the choice of every dad on earth, I would have chosen you. You made me who I am and I am grateful.
Thank you for being everything you could be for me.
I love you.