Dear Dad…Here’s what I’m not going to tell you

I’m about to call you to wish you a happy Father’s day.  I talked to you just a few days ago – it was your birthday – so I won’t have a lot to say on this call.  I will have a lot that I could say.  I probably won’t say all of the things that I’ve been thinking.

Why?  I’m not really sure.  Outside of a few unguarded moments – moments that I treasure, we’ve both been a little reserved when it comes to talking about some things. I sense that you’d  pull back a little if I go down that road — telling you what you really mean to me.

I’m a little bit that way myself – on a personal level.  On a public level, it’s been totally different.   Especially when I was younger, I craved recognition.  I wanted attention. I think that’s what drove me to my first career as a performer.  I loved the audience — and I loved the applause.

But it’s one thing when the applause comes from an audience — far away, across the footlights.  When it’s my public persona operating, it’s one thing.   When it’s “up close and personal” it’s another.   I’m a much more private person than anyone expects.

People say I get that from you.  And I smile.  Because we both know if that’s true, it’s the ultimate answer in the “nature versus nurture debate”.    I’m an adopted kid.  Adopted later in life to boot.  I was a teenager when you rescued me.  I don’t think that’s too strong a term.

When you took me in, I didn’t have many places to go.  My own “genetic” family life had disolved some time back.  I was on my own — once again.

When you and mom invited me to dinner (which apparently I devoured — although I have no memory of that) it wasn’t just a dinner invitation.  You invited me into your life.  You did it with that same classic understatement that I would come to know through the years.  Neither one of you were  looking for thanks.  You weren’t looking to be thought of as doing anything out of the ordinary.  You were so “matter of fact” about it.

You said, “I think you should come and live with us.”   I’m not exactly sure how you phrased it.  I was a bit in shock.  I do remember how calm and matter of fact it was.  Like every good work you do or have done — it was no big deal.  “See how it works out.”

I probably tried to match you in that “matter of fact” tone.  I don’t know how well I did.  Why?  My hear was pounding.  I was awash with emotions – mostly panic and fear.  Why?

I’m not going to do an “oh poor me” but there are some facts about my life that you need to know for this to make sense.  I did have it tough, and life didn’t hand me everything on a platter.  But from my own point of view, all I could see was what I’d messed up.  And I’d done my share, even at that young age.  I’d been in some really lousy places, but  I’d also screwed up some potentially good relationships at a series of foster homes.  Which was it this time?   Didn’t matter.  What did matter was that  I was on the street again.

I could blame my luck.  I could blame circumstance.  I could even claim self-defence.  I had a lifetime of rejection packed into a few formative years.  I remember one time vividly, staying with a family while my mother was recovering from one of many bouts with alchoholism.   In contrast to my home – the ever worsening series of cheap places we lived in until the inevitable catastrophe or breakdown, this place was heaven.  I desperately wanted to stay there.   I remember being in the kitchen where the dinner was cooking, smelling the food.  I remember thinking how incredible it was.   I remember the lady who said, “don’t be silly – you can’t live with us, this is just till your mother gets well.”   I remember my face getting red.  What a fool I’d made of myself.

It wasn’t the last  rejection — but eventually I’d learn.  I’d learn to end it before they did.

I ran away.  I acted out.  Sometimes I escaped.  Inevitably, I hurt some people along the way.  I might have been just a kid, but I had some things figured out.  Don’t get your hopes up.  Things end badly.  If fate didn’t screw it up, I would.

So tonight, as much as I wanted to shout it out – “Yes! Please!”  I didn’t.  I really didn’t think I was up for losing again.  Not with you.

You see, you weren’t just a teacher.  You were someone who I admired.   I wanted your recognition . Your approval.   It was important.   What you thought about me mattered because you had given me a chance to shine, to show off a budding talent — to see my ability and maybe, just for a few minutes, to believe in myself.   Because of you, I could dream of a future that might be possible.

I was no longer the kid who’d been beaten up in so many neighbourhoods, tough schools and on the street.  I wasn’t the scared little kid who learned to be tougher — at least to pretend, and yes, sometimes to fight.   In this new place, this new school, I was a kid with artistic talent.  I was a top student in a middle class school where being bright meant that you were destined for university, where you won awards — not where you got beat up for it.  I was one of the high school MVP’s – not in football, but in the drama program.   We won trophies for the school – more than the football team.   I’d never be a jock, but I was finally one of the “cool kids”.

I wore it poorly sometimes.  It was like a glove that never fit well.  Sometimes I felt like an imposter.  It was a feeling that would haunt me for years.  But even with the fear, this was the best time of my life.  I couldn’t bear to lose it.

And it was because of you.  You gave me all that.  I arrived at the school after some trouble with the law got me shipped off to a sister who couldn’t handle me but who took me in temporarily.   It could have been just another in a series of schools and moves.

I was lost.  I had no friends.  Then a miracle happened.  You picked me out of the kids in your theatre arts class.  You suggested that I come out for the musical.   You gave me a shot at a key role.   That was where it started.  I was starring in a rock musical!  I went from nobody to somebody.  From there, my life was heading off into a new world.    I didn’t know what was yet to come —  the roles in the little theatre.   The drama competitions we would win.  The trophies I’d take back to the school   Winning space in the provincial touring company.  I didn’t know — but I felt for the first time that I could dare to hope.

If that was all you had ever done for me, it would have been more than enough.  But there was more.

Because all  of that new life was hanging by a thread on the night I came to dinner.   I was back on the street.   I was doing what would now be “couch surfing”.  Too young to work.   I was hanging on by my fingernails.

Once again, you came to my rescue.  I was sitting in your kitchen.  You were saying that you thought I should come to live with you.

Did I seem calm?  I was trying to.   I was trying to be like you.  Calm.  Matter of fact.  But that’s not what I was feeling inside.  Inside, I was a wreck.

Maybe that’s why I really don’t remember what I said.   Or maybe it’s self defence — maybe it’s better that I don’t know what I said.

It didn’t matter.  You weren’t going to give up on me.  You never did.  You and mom — you never gave up.

And over the years, I gave you cause to.  Oh my god, I did give you cause.

It’s all just memories now.  The painful stuff happened in a place far away, to somebody else.  Some of what felt so serious then seems even a little silly now.  I can almost laugh about things after all these years.  I hope you can as well.  But at the time, I know I put you through a lot.

You could have taken an honourable exit many times.  I gave you lots of chances.  No one would have blamed you.  I wasn’t your “real” kid.  You didn’t owe me anything.  But you never gave up on me.

Since then, my llife has been a journey.  There have been some real lows but also some real high points.  As always, success still felt like a glove that didn’t fit well.   Especially in the early years, it was only a matter of time until I’d screw up.   I’d lose  opportunities, I’d mess up relationships.  I dropped out of university.   I lived through some tough times.

Still you never gave up on me.  And I think, at least in part, that’s why I never really gave up on me either.

So today – life is pretty good.  I had some great success.  In my first career — a Juno nomination, a gold album, some great roles and even some recognition.  As a business person, I’ve also made my way through a great career.   As a consultant, I’ve certainly been recognized in my profession.  I went back to university at night and today I teach at two universities.  I write for some great publications.  It goes on.  Today,  success isn’t what I think about.   It comes or it doesn’t.  Today, my life fits me like an old comfortable glove.  I’m who I am and I’m good with that.

So today, I’ll phone you with a smile and share some  joy.  I got a hug from my son and we saw the Avengers last night together.  This morning I had breakfast with my wife of 29 years and was struck by the realization that I was one of those lucky few who has found their true love and soul mate.  And no, the kids forgot the card — again.   But the card my wife gave me and the note she wrote was so beautiful that I felt a tear of joy slide down my cheek.  Even the dog had a little extra energy this morning.   Life isn’t all a bed of roses.  My daughter isn’t talking to me for reasons I’ll never understand.   She’s got some stuff that she has to work out.   But I’m not giving up on her.   I learned that from you.   So all in all — it’s been a happy Father’s day for me.

So I wanted to phone you dad — and wish you the same.  I wanted to say all this and more.  But don’t worry.  I won’t.

I’ll just say that I called to wish you a happy Father’s day.  You won’t see me get a little misty.  Because we’re not like that, you and I.

So I’ll just say happy Father’s day.  And I’ll hope that you’ll know what I mean.

Happy Father’s day.

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