It was in the early to mid 90’s, so I must have been in my early 30’s, maybe 33. I was at a family event when my uncle came up to me and asked how my parents were doing. I must have grumbled something about how my dad and I weren’t speaking much. My uncle, who’s opinion I value greatly, offered an insight in his direct way, “You’ll have to make that work.” That’s all he said. No long exhortation on “Father Wounds” or Honoring Your Father, just a pithy insight into the nature of fathers and sons. Thus ending the years-long struggle I had with my dad.
I really don’t know now that I look back on whatever it was between my dad and me. I suppose it was a combination of things: I wanted to be my own man; I wanted my dad’s respect; I wanted acknowledgement from my dad that my value and opinions were adult and therefore worthy of equality; I wanted my dad to change.
But my dad wasn’t going to change. He wasn’t going to open up. His “way” of doing things didn’t meet my next generation standards, so comments of mine must have built up a residue of sand in our relational gears. My dad had a very strong-headed style that sometimes, oftentimes, was off-putting. When he decided things, it wasn’t up for review or discussion. So for me, a husband, a father, a worker, and supposedly an adult, I didn’t feel like he considered me an equal.
What a joke. I wasn’t his equal. My dad had graduated from the Naval Academy, flew F-100 Super Saber fighter bombers stationed out of Japan, raised a family, started several businesses, suffered through business decline, and was in his 60’s. His experience in life was so much more hard scrabble than I could image. For me to immaturely think I could bend him to my desires was really inflated and naïve. The only tools I had for the fight was angst and silence. From my mom’s communication, despite the pain in the relationship, my dad’s response was “So be it”. This from a man who physically fought with his dad when his dad got drunk and hit his mom. He was inured to relational unpleasantness.
That’s what made my uncle’s incisive comment so accurate, he spoke to the father and son dynamic in context. If there was a conflict, if a distance existed between me and my dad, then it would be up to me to reconcile it. My dad wasn’t going to change, so, the insight was, I would have to be the one to close the gap. What a powerful thought. It was as if he said, “Time to grow up.”
Father and son relationships, at their best, evolve over time; at their worst, don’t. People grow up in the era of their lifetime. The inputs, the economics, the culture, the temporal memes, the family context are all the soil from which we grow up. My dad’s early life was dedicated to raising a post-war post-farm modern family and had to navigate the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s with all those complexities. I had none of that. My soil was so much free of rocks no wonder I was naïve.
So here I am now a handful of years short of where my dad was at the time. He’s been gone now for 10 years. I am very glad that I walked the relationship back to functioning. It gave us almost a dozen years together where we slowly got to an enjoyable footing. I swallowed my positions, whatever they were, and prioritized the relationship ahead of my ego. I ate crow or humble pie or whatever I needed to in order to reconcile. And for a time, it was an effort. But eventually my dad acknowledged the effort with effort of his own. I, he, and our relationship evolved. My uncle’s insight said, “You have the flexibility and should take the lead to ensure that the relationship remains active; you should honor your father because that’s the right thing to do; because you will live to regret not doing what is necessary to make it work.”
As Robert Frost’s poem so eloquently lays down this sentiment:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So as it pertains to my ego, I took the road less traveled.
Gentlemen, to your evolved relationships with your fathers,