I barely remember my father. He died when I was 12, which is a long time ago. He died suddenly and unexpectedly. One morning, we had breakfast together, he left for work, and that’s the last time I saw him alive.
All the memories I have of my dad are viewed through the lens of a little boy. He was a big man, and he seemed like a giant to me. He was a naval officer, and as you might expect, he was a rather strict disciplinarian. I remember fearing him nearly as much as loving him.
Because my dad was on active duty, he was gone for long periods of time. His ship would leave on a cruise and stay gone for months at a time, and he once served a year-long deployment in Vietnam.
Now that I’m a man, I try to think back and understand who my dad was. I’ve wondered if he was as big as I imagined. Was he really as strict as I remember? But here’s what I’ve struggled with the most: did my dad really love me?
In the early years after my father’s death, my mom went out of her way to reinforce the fact that he loved me. He was my little league baseball coach when he was home. He would come to my Pop Warner football games. He put up a basketball rim in our driveway so I could shoot hoops. To my mom, that was proof he loved me.
But it’s not that easy. As I think back, I can’t remember a single time that my father told me he loved me. I imagine he did. I’m pretty sure he did. But I don’t remember. I remember the discipline, I remember the absence, but I don’t remember those three words.
You might wonder why hearing those words matter so much. What’s the big deal in saying “I love you” when he seemed to show love with his actions? Here’s why. Because after my father died, a few men made an effort to step in and fill the void his death created. My uncles would play catch with me. My friends’ dads would invite me to ball games and outings. In other words, those men were making the exact same gestures that my father made. Did that mean they loved me like a father? Probably not.
I really do believe that my father loved me, and I also believe that he told me and I just can’t remember. This has taught me an important lesson about fathers and love: Don’t assume that your children know you love them just because you are their father. Don’t assume that they have the maturity to connect the dots and understand that your long hours at work, or your attendance at their games or dance recitals are gestures of love. Say it. Say those three words. Say them a thousand times, so that when you’re gone, they will remember.