Written August 5, 1990
All I really wanted to say was “I’m sorry.”
I had said some hurtful things to my Father. But he had been dead for three years. How do make amends after they’re gone? It wasn’t perfect, not like him being there, but I was talking to him anyway. Just making up a conversation in my mind, inside my spirit. And answering for him – what I thought he would say. No, that’s not quite true. Some of the things my Dad had said to me, but I could not hear them at the time, or at least, could not receive his words.
My Dad had owned 5 acres of land in the country outside Tulsa that he was planting in pecan trees. We had been out there one time, with me clearing trees and brush while he grafted pecan trees. While we were resting, he’d been telling me stories about the good old days, like he always did. I told him that with any other adult male I would get up and leave if the stories got too much, and so I would with him. God, how that must have hurt.
And now I felt bad about it. I imagined us now out at that land once again, sitting in camp chairs under the large oak trees, resting in the shade. I was saying now what I couldn’t say before.
“Dad, I know it must have hurt you, what I said when we were out here that time; that and some other things I did.”
He answered me. “Yes, son, that did hurt. I never knew you didn’t like my stories. I didn’t know what to say.” He paused. “What other things?”
“Dad, I guess it was mostly me provoking you, arguing with anything you said, rebelling. Putting you down. I did a lot of subtle stuff. I didn’t know why I was so angry with you. I’ve learned more and seen where all that anger was coming from. But that didn’t make it right what I did.” It felt like my words were all rushing out, stumbling over each other, eager to be free. I felt awkward, like I was saying it poorly, now that I had the chance.
He replied. “Yes, it did feel like whatever I did wasn’t good enough for you at times. Almost like I couldn’t live up to your expectations. But Cowboy, I know I hurt you, too, many times. And I think that’s where your anger started. I didn’t ever remember – I was too drunk. But now I know more.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, reflecting.
He spoke again. “It’s real sad, but I guess it happens a lot. My Father was there for me, and then when I was 12, he left. He turned his back on me. I felt hurt, abandoned, and like he didn’t love me any more.” He paused for a moment, then continued. “And I can see now that I turned away from you when you were the same age. I began punishing you. I was really proud of your writing, your speaking, your acting. But I made stupid, ugly comments about them all – I can remember now – over here we see things a lot of things more clearly. And I know I hit you, abused you. I guess it was because you were daring to develop your creativeness – and I had never been able to. But that’s no excuse.”
There it was. What I’d always wanted to hear, wanted him to admit – I hadn’t realized it would be this hard to accept. I was having trouble catching my breath. We sat for a long time, not speaking. I spoke again, feeling my words. “Thanks, Dad, for saying that. That’s the way it felt for me, too. But the things I said to you were wrong, no matter what you did to me. I blamed you for all my problems and played victim and all that shit. I have to accept responsibility for what I did after I was grown up. I apologize.”
“Me too, Cowboy. I apologize, too. The sickness and the disease we carry with us makes us do hateful things, things we would not do if we were in our right minds. I never intended to hurt you. I was very proud of you. But when I was in my sickness, I couldn’t always let it show.”
“Thank you, Dad. I do know now that you were proud of me – you told me before, but I couldn’t hear it.” We sat in silence, hearing the breeze whistling through the trees, the birds singing in the upper branches. I drew in a deep breath.
“Dad, there’s something else.”
“I know, son.”
“I have to leave. I have to separate from you, and be me, be Dan. I have lived for 20 years trying to be what I thought you wanted me to be, not who I really was. I hope you understand I mean no disrespect by leaving.”
“No, Dan, I don’t think that way, not at all. I don’t know if you remember, but I encouraged you to go out and be whatever you wanted to be, and I’d support you.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well, I meant that. If you want to be a writer, I support you in that. I am glad you are happier being that.”
“Thanks, Dad. But please know this. I will take with me the gifts you have given me.”
“Gifts? Like what?”
I started choking up. “Well, like when I saw you have the courage to come home and put our family back together after you sobered up. And even though it took 10 years, you got back your old job. And the guts to stick to it, even though it would have been easier to leave. Staying sober for 20 years. You modeled for me perseverance. And courage. You gave me my love of literature, of reading. My writing ability came from you. You know, I’ve always been real proud of you. But in my sickness, I couldn’t tell you either.”
“Thank you, son.” We sat quietly for a time. “So can we be at peace with each other?” my Father asked.
“Yes, Dad. At peace. I am a man, now, and I want to shake your hand – man to man.”
We shook hands, solemnly, firmly, slowly. “You certainly are a man, Dan. And a very remarkable one. Go for it. All the way. Let your writing go as far as it will – and that’s a long way!”
“Thank you, Ben. I will. I will remember you always, treasure all you gave me. You are part of the story I have to tell. You are one of the greatest men I have ever known.” I paused. “I’ll check with you along the way. Goodbye, Ben.”
“You do that, Cowboy. Goodbye. Vaya Con Dios. Go With God.”
Several years after I wrote this piece, when I felt I was ready, I went back out to the land with the pecan trees and read this piece out loud. I made a ritual out of it, read the conversation very deliberately and with a solemn sense of ceremony – because I knew that at the land he loved so much, he would hear it. I also knew the words would become more real for me as well, as part of saying goodbye to Dad.
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