Relationships

A letter to my father on his 90th birthday

I couldn't remember having said "I love you" to him since kindergarten

We’d had a distant relationship for years. He could never seem to understand me; I couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) understand him. 

I just couldn’t talk to my father. He was preoccupied with five children, a long commute, upkeep of the house. In my immaturity I felt his lack of emotion meant he didn’t love us.

He could be negative. He could get angry. I was self-absorbed and stubborn, and we kept butting heads.

Thankfully, with maturity came a different perspective. Coming back to the Church opened my eyes to seeing him, and myself, differently. I bothered to take the time to see things about him that I hadn’t noticed before, and I came to the realization that — surprise! — I wasn’t the easiest child to raise.   

For his birthday a few years before he died, I wrote my Dad a letter. I couldn’t remember having said “I love you” to him since maybe scrawling it on a card in kindergarten. 

Dear Dad, 

I want to say Happy Birthday by telling you how grateful I am that you’re my father. I want to thank you for so many things I foolishly never thanked you for.

The two sweltering days painting my bedroom a hideous shade of green after my hounding you for weeks.  

All the times you’d interrupt what you were doing to drive me to a friend’s house. I remember asking you to pick me up late at night. I’d hear, That’s pretty late. Your mother and I are just about asleep then.” But then, “Well, OK, if you’re having a nice time, OK, I’ll be there.

All the times you walked me a few blocks to CCD when I was in high school. Even though times were safe and you’d rather have been in your favorite chair, you made sure my faith formation continued.

All the times you reminded me what foods I couldn’t eat because of my allergies. When I came home from trick-or-treating, you’d always say, Remember you can’t have any chocolate, Patty. I’m sorry, I wish you could. But I’ll help you out by taking it off your hands for you!” Your corny jokes still make me smile!

Saying grace before dinner. As we kids were diving into our food, you’d often say, “Hold on, we say grace first.” It was such an example of gratefulness to God. Meaningless to me then. Powerful to me now.

When I wanted to quit swimming lessons you just wouldn’t allow it. You were there when twice I failed the beginner test, assuring me that some things come more naturally for some than for others.

My love of the beach and our National Parks comes from you. I remember your saying, We’re so fortunate to live near the beach! and Why travel overseas if you haven’t seen our National Parks yet? How great it’s been to introduce my boys to our awesome parks.

My love of photography! Those family photos capturing memories of First Communions, Confirmations, ball games, birthday parties, and Christmases all showed your devotion to your family and sentimentality. Now my boys tease me about endless picture taking.

So many times I was about to drive somewhere and you’d check the oil and the air. I can see you getting out a map on the kitchen table and marking the best route. Drive safely. If you have any problem, just call me, you’d say.

The moral lessons you instilled by helping others. The time you rushed over to a neighbor’s house when she shouted that her basement was flooding. Thirty years later that woman remembered that incident and told me how you searched for the water turn-off valve and spent two hours hauling out soaked stuff. All the Sundays I saw you put an envelope in the church basket, carefully budgeted for (the envelope sat in a prominent place on your dresser all week). Bringing an elderly neighbor to church and your devotion to your elderly mother. I remember going with you to her house on Saturdays to just do a few jobs for Nana.   

Your love of words. You were always learning the definition of a word you were unsure of. I still have your huge dictionary from your college days, 1940-44. Today I find myself using my dictionary app and think how you would’ve loved it!

I remember Mom listening to a transistor radio in the basement laundry room propped on the washing machine. You decided to make a shelf for it, and got to work. It was the simple acts like this that showed me how much you loved Mom.

And most of all, raising us Catholic! I sure didn’t appreciate it for years, but I do now! I realize now how much more important is the faith over any job, “happiness,” and even health. What more crucial goal can there be than heaven? Your rosary beads were always by your bedside and I never saw you without your Miraculous Medal. I’m so very grateful to be Catholic!

I love you Dad.

Love,  Patty

I didn’t know how he would react, and I watched his face as he read. He had both tears and a laugh or two, and as he finished, he said, “I love you too!” Except for when my mother died, I’d never seen my father cry. He loved us not with words, but in practical ways.

Three years ago, when my dad died, I came across this letter that he’d saved. I was glad all over again that I’d written it.

Kate

Patty Knap

Patty Knap is a Catholic revert and a blogger with the National Catholic Register.