A Father’s Wish

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to spend four uninterrupted hours in the car with my oldest son. There were certain topics I had decided ahead of time that I wanted to discuss with him to take advantage of this gift of time alone.

We had no trouble talking about how he spent his week with my parents or the attractions he enjoyed at Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure with my brother and my niece. It was easy to discuss his opportunities to eat out, the menus and the humorous moments with his Paw Paw and Granny. I got a detailed run down on the movies they watched and new television shows he wanted to add to his repertoire.

But when there was a lull in the conversation, before I had a chance to introduce a more serious subject, the iPad would come out, the headphones would go on and Barron would immerse himself in his music.

I get to celebrate Father's Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn't staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot.
I get to celebrate Father’s Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn’t staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot. Photo by Maureen Atwood Photography.

I don’t believe for a second that he was being defensive. I don’t think he was avoiding anything. He had no idea I had an agenda. He was doing what he always does, what comes naturally.

I’m a talkative guy. I typically don’t have a problem striking up a conversation, meaningful or trivial, with anyone. Over the years, I’ve even grown in my ability to talk about painful subjects with my own father and mother, a feat many adults never achieve.

Somehow, though, on this day, I couldn’t bring myself to do what I always do, what comes naturally for me.

Our conversation for the remaining three hours of the trip was intermittent. When Barron thought of something to tell me, he would pause his Hans Zimmer or Alan Silvestri or John Williams long enough to express it. When the conversation lagged and before I could bring up my list of talking points, he went back under the headphones.

With about 45 minutes left in our trip, I calculated we had enough time to cover at least one or two topics. Discussions with pre-teens don’t typically last as long as you plan.

I became nervous. I consciously tried not to convey anxiety as I casually transitioned the conversation during one of his headphone breaks. The car can be a safe place to have these kinds of talks because you don’t have to make eye contact, but the risk is that your child feels cornered with no escape.

Naturally he reached for the headphones. I told him he didn’t have to go back to his music just yet. So for about 20 minutes we had a good conversation on a meaningful topic before returning to lighter fare.

That’s it. Twenty minutes out of four hours. Somehow, I couldn’t carry on an in-depth conversation with my 12-year-old son for more than 20 minutes.

The trip ended with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Happy at our progress, I had to fight back the feeling that I failed to achieve my objective.

Why couldn’t I talk to my own son?

I suddenly had a small window into the world of my own father. How many times had Dad tried to discuss important subjects with me, only to have me unwittingly or even wittingly undermine it with trivial conversations about sports or entertainment?

This Father’s Day, I may get all manner of practical, thoughtful and lovingly-presented gifts from my wife and three sons, but all I really want is to have meaningful conversations with each of them. It doesn’t have to be on Father’s Day. In fact, it would be nice to spread them throughout the year.

I will continue to look for ways to have these conversations. They are truly gifts that I treasure, and someday my boys will think back on them and realize the truth that I now grasp: being a father means taking risks and sometimes feeling like a failure. But there is no more rewarding way I could spend my life.

So there, Amazon, put that on your “Ideas for Father’s Day Gifts” direct e-mail marketing campaign.

Can you remember having important conversations with your children or your parents? How did it happen? Were they good memories or do they dredge up repressed emotions? What advice would you give on how to have meaningful dialogue with your kids? Take a minute to leave your thoughts in a comment below, and we’ll all benefit from your wisdom.

What I want to tell my dad

Of all the retail-induced holidays, Father’s Day requires the most time at the greeting card shelf.

It takes me forever to find something that captures the essence of the relationship I have with my dad. I don’t know who writes cards these days, but some of us would like something more meaningful than fishing, golf, napping, giving your children money, flatulence and drinking beer.

Dad shares funny videos with Harris and Carlton
Dad, sporting his sabbatical moustache, shares funny YouTube videos with his grandsons Harris and Carlton.

I also don’t feel that the sappy cards say exactly what I feel either, and it’s hard for sons to imagine giving voice to such sentiments. If you buy into the fact that a card can say something that you can’t verbalize, then maybe those cards are appropriate, but I strive for authenticity in my Father’s Day message.

So rather than let a greeting card company speak for me this year, I thought I’d subject you to a list – five things I want to tell Dad this year:

1. As I get older, I don’t need you less; I need you in a different way. I understand if it feels like what you used to do for me isn’t needed or appreciated, but now that I’m a father of three boys, your accumulated wisdom and experience can benefit me. And when we have an open line of communication, I can share my questions and problems in a way that invites your input. Ultimately I may make different choices than you did, but it is helpful to hear what you learned from raising us three.

2. It gives me great joy to see you enjoy your grandchildren. I can buy you gifts. I can finally afford to buy you dinner now and then. I can offer verbal affirmations that may lift your spirits. But I feel like the best I can give you is time with my boys. When I see you laughing and singing those crazy songs with them, it reminds me of those special times I enjoyed with you when I was young. I believe it brings you real joy to have those times, and maybe you are getting to re-live your best moments with your sons. I know it means a lot to my boys because of the way they talk about their Paw Paw.

Dad and Daniel Vestal
Pastor Wallace and Dr. Daniel Vestal, two preachers telling fish stories at my 40th birthday party.

3. Although you have been a pastor for more than 30 years, you were my dad first. While I have seen you in the role of spiritual leader and adviser, I need you primarily to be my dad. Last month as Carla and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, I watched the video from the rehearsal dinner.  As I listened to a much younger version of me explain why I asked you to be my best man rather than officiate the ceremony, I was struck by how I feel the same today. I have always respected your convictions and your ministry, but your support, correction and guidance have had a greater impact on shaping who I am. You always seemed to know that, and I am grateful.

4. I still want to make you proud. I’m not bringing home report cards or playing high school sports anymore, but I am not so differentiated that your approval doesn’t carry significant weight. The profound impact you have had on my identity comes through with nearly every important decision I make. What you think, whether I want to admit it or not, still enters into the equation as I consider options and angles. You continue to make a difference in my life and worldview.

5. I can’t say this any other way: I love you. I love you on your best day, and I love you on your worst. I love you when you feel like you are being a good dad, and I love you when you feel that you have failed. I love you when you preach your best sermon, and I love you when you deliver a dud. I love you when you give surprising and extravagant gifts, and I love you when all you can offer is an encouraging word. As I grow to understand a father’s love from firsthand experience, I love you more each day. No circumstance I can imagine will change that.

So if there’s a card on the shelf that says all that, I couldn’t find it. I hope you don’t mind that I shared this in a public forum. I have a hunch that there are a lot of sons out there who would say similar things to their dads if they could find the right card.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I look forward to many more years of learning from you, loving you and depending on you.  You’re a great father, and I hope that truth will give you more joy than a gift card.

OK, I’ve had my chance, what would you say to your dad if you could? In what ways has your father made an impact on you? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Teach your children well

It’s an understatement to say my dad taught me a lot while I was growing up.

He taught me right from wrong, self-discipline, the value of a dollar, how to maintain cleanliness and order, the importance of doing a job well and how to nurture a strong faith. Dad also taught me a number of practical skills such as hammering a nail, turning a screw, mowing the grass, handling a weed trimmer and shaving.

My dad with Harris, left, and Barron

He taught me how to have fun, tell stories and jokes, play Monopoly and checkers and other essential board games, fish, throw and catch a baseball and how to do a pineapple
dive
(aka banana dive) that splashes everyone standing on the side of a pool.

But what stands out in my mind for some reason is the day he taught me to change the oil and brake shoes in the car. Now I could very well have forgotten exactly how this occurred: he probably taught me to do these two things at different times, but in my memory, they occurred together.

I was about 13 or 14. The car was on the parking pad at our house on Holly Street in Lake
Wales, Fla.
He showed me how to check the dip stick, jack the car, place the drip pan, remove the plug, remove the filter, replace the plug (very important), replace the filter and pour in the new oil with the assistance of a handy funnel. Brake shoes were a little more complicated and involved a clamp, I think.

I have changed my oil a number of times, although not recently. To do this day, I have never changed my own brake shoes. Sorry, Dad.

As Father’s Day approaches, all of this has me wondering what dads teach their sons in the New South?

I’m sure there are plenty of dads still teaching the finer points of team sports and the basics of throwing, catching, shooting a basketball and so on. I believe fathers are still teaching their boys to appreciate the outdoors and how to fish and hunt.

Carlton recoils at the sight of bass in the live well after our spring break fishing trip. Dad was teaching his grandsons that day.

There are plenty of new skills to be handed down in this digital era. In the New South, dads must teach their sons how to program a universal TV remote, master the misdirection play on the Madden football video game, download songs from iTunes, use a GPS, shop on Amazon, read a Kindle, pick movies on Netflix and upload videos to YouTube.

No matter the era and the practical skills required, I hope to pass on to my three sons the timeless essentials every boy of character must know and practice. My dad taught me well.