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A Letter to My Dad on Father's Day

Dear Dad,

I am not a huge fan of Father’s Day, because I don’t like being told when I should appreciate you or how I should express my gratitude. (As you may have noticed over the last 49 years, I generally don’t like being told what to do.) But, Father’s Day is here to stay. And, since I am now a parent myself, I finally understand that no amount of expressed appreciation could ever be enough to thank you for being my dad. So I’ll use this Father's Day to share a few thank yous, based on our life together so far. I know that as I move through the stages of my own life, this list will grow, and your gifts to me will continue to show up in ways that will surprise me and make me smile. For today, though, here are the first seven items on the list.

1) Thank you for being patient. 

All parents will agree that patience is one of the hardest virtues to maintain, especially when you see your child misbehave, act carelessly, or make a mistake. Somehow, you always knew when to talk to me about these things, and it was never in the heat of the moment. You waited, made a cup of tea, and sat down across from me to have these conversations. You wrote letters outlining your concerns. You shared your thoughts, and then let me sort through them in my own time. You understood that sometimes it takes a while for something to sink in; this lesson has been essential to me as an adult, and especially now, as the mother of two strong teenage girls.

2) Thank you for being kind.

You have never raised your voice (or a hand) to me. After caring for abused children in the ER, and having been the victim of domestic violence myself with an old boyfriend, I realize now that not all men are kind like you. Sadly, those men create future generations who either continue their bad habits or have been deeply scarred by them. You, by always carrying kindness in your heart and in your sparkly, grey-blue eyes, have done just the opposite: you raised me, I married a kind man, and we are teaching our children to be considerate, compassionate creatures.

3) Thank you for having faith in me. 

You see, I know you had faith in me because I have faith in myself. I can’t remember an occasion in my life when you discouraged me from taking on a challenge, from marathons to medical school to starting a company. You’d tell me it would be difficult, and that I’d have to work hard and get dirty for the cause, and then you’d give a nod of approval because you believed I was capable. Those nods added up over the years and wove themselves in to who I am—a girl who is not afraid to try anything, unless it involves snakes. 

4) Thank you for making me feel safe in the world. 

When I had a nightmare, I would tiptoe into your room. You’d open one eye, lift your side of the blankets, and make a spot for me to crawl in to safety. You would let me rest there long enough to release my demons, and then you’d pat my back and I’d slip back to my own bed. There were no words exchanged. When horrible things happen in the world, it emphasizes how many people do not feel safe in this world, from the criminals whose demons have never been released, to the innocent victims of awful hate crimes. While fathers can’t prevent evil from existing, and no words will fix the pain that life can bring, you made me understand that sometimes the simple act of creating a safe spot for the ones you love is enough to help them heal.

5) Thank you for reading to me. 

Every night of my childhood, until my teen years, you read to me. We sat together in your cracked, leather chair reading The Wizard of Oz or Mr. Men books until we couldn’t fit there anymore. You were the master of endless voices, and knew just when to close the book gently and nudge me off to bed. It’s a tradition I continued with my girls, and there was not a single night when I didn’t close the book and feel your influence in their lives. In a world where screens are replacing pages, I am so grateful that my girls know the gift of reading a real book with only their imaginations to create the pictures in their heads. 

6) Thank you for respecting women.

The idea that I should be treated differently—socially or professionally—because I am female never even occurred to me as a young woman. While I think my mom played a solid role in my perception, I realize now that it’s also because of you. Had I been raised by a different sort of father, I might have felt like it was my job to stay home or make babies or have dinner on the table at a certain time each night. Instead, I saw you balance your busy life as a law professor with making dinner while my mom worked way too many hours. In the end, I decided to have children, but did so with a man who shares the cooking, does way more cleaning than I do, and who supports my career as strongly as I support his. I chose this guy because you had demonstrated that he was the kind of guy worth partnering with—one who would hold me in a space of equality and mutual respect. And I'm very conscious of balancing things a little better than mom did, so my fella doesn't have to take on quite as much as you did.

7) Thank you for laughing. 

Of all the memories I treasure with you, the ones that dominate are those where tears are streaming down your face, which is impossibly red from laughing. There are truly too many to count. There were gastrointestinal maladies, such as the unfortunate traveler’s diarrhea (and doubly unfortunate toilet paper shortage) that plagued us both in the bathrooms across Morocco: with a different travel partner, that situation could have been quite grim rather than...explosively funny. There was the contest to see whose mouth could hold more grapes, which ended in frantic, garbled speech, much drool, and a not-insignificant risk of choking to death. Our endless pun wars will forever haunt my dreams in the form of the unique tension you feel when it’s your turn and all your gears are grinding trying to think of the next line. All of these hilarious memories illuminate what I now see as a fundamental truth: finding the funny in life is a critical skill if you want to survive this precious, defective, confusing world we inhabit. It is a certainty that we will all shed tears. You just helped me understand that some of them need to come from laughing until you can’t breathe.

People love to say “you can’t choose your family,” and I understand why: families are complicated, and sometimes people who should love each other deeply have trouble doing so with tenacity and grace. You are not a perfect father. I am not a perfect daughter. But give me a lineup of all the dads I’ve ever known, and I would choose you as my family. Again, and again, and again.

Thank you for these seven things, and for countless others. Wishing you a happy Father’s Day, today, and every day.