Saturday, June 19, 2010

Presiding in Love

Editor's Note: This is my article, already published in this month's issue of Desert Saints Magazine. The magazine did not include this delightful photo from the same era as this story. That's me on the left, and my brother, Justin, next to me. My grandpa has his arm on me, and that's Dad next to him. And please notice I have my Mork & Mindy tank-top tucked into my shorts. I like to look nice, even when I'm on vacation and out in the country. 

Presiding in Love

I was 10 years old the first time I ever saw my father cry.

Prior to that, I lived with the belief that he had simply been born with constipated tear ducts. I mean, life had certainly dealt him plenty of opportunities to be emotional. He just didn’t respond. Like the time he and I were playing Frisbee in the street and he jumped to intercept said disc, which I had thrown with all the accuracy and precision of a 7 year old, and he unintentionally landed on the sidewalk curb, spraining his ankle. (P.S. I was 7 years old the first time I ever heard my dad swear.)

It just wasn’t in Dad’s makeup to display his emotions. He’d grown up as an only child in a home where any demonstration of genuine feelings was met, on a good day, with indifference, and on a bad day, it was used against you. Not a great deal of warmth or acceptance. But from where I sit, he grew into an exceptional man, regardless of less than ideal circumstances.

He served a mission for the Church in New Zealand, came home and went the to the University of Arizona, and met and married my mom – who more than made up for any lack of love and approval that was previously unavailable in his life. He was then drafted and went to Vietnam. I think he may resent being away from my mom during those months more than anything else in his life. On rare occasion, if it’s late enough and quiet enough, he will share some of those harrowing experiences with me. And I marvel at his strength, mentally and emotionally.

My dad may be the wisest man I have known. Certainly one of the best, thanks in large part to my mom’s influence. My parents went on to have seven children. I found it remarkable that a man who was an only child became the father of seven. I’ve sometimes wondered, though never asked out loud, if there was a point when he thought, “What in the world am I doing? Let’s rein it in here.” But it’s my conviction that his family is where he finds his greatest joy. That’s what I learned that Sunday afternoon, while sitting across from him in the living room, when he openly cried.

My dad was an accountant by profession, but was always on the prowl for other business ventures. That’s how his mind worked – always busy looking for opportunity. Around 1981, he had developed a wonderful, revolutionary idea. He had raised a great deal of investor money to launch everything…and then his business partner disappeared with the inventory and cash in hand. That left my dad with the feeling that he had just landed on a proverbial business curb, and sprained his entire livelihood.

At 10 years old, I wasn’t privy to the details of what was happening, and I wouldn’t have understood them anyway. All I knew, in my little world, was that dad wasn’t himself, mom wasn’t as generous at the grocery store when I queried her about certain Hostess treats, and I kept hearing phrases like “losing the house” and “declaring bankruptcy.” It was a little unnerving, though admittedly due mostly to the fact that I wasn’t getting my proper rationing of Ding Dongs.

As I sat on the floor across from Dad that afternoon, I wondered what was going to happen to our little family. I wanted to understand what was happening, I wanted to let Dad know I loved him and was sorry for how things were; and I suppose I wanted to be reassured. I sat there waiting for him to look up from the newspaper at me and acknowledge that I had something to tell him. I was hesitant to interrupt his reading of the “Funny Pages,” which he decried regularly, but continued to read each Sunday, regardless.

“Dad,” I finally half-whispered.

He looked up at me. I wasn’t sure what exactly to ask, or if he felt like explaining, or if my asking would simply be dismissed. My young mind searched for the right words that would hopefully elicit an answer and at the same time offer up sympathy.

“…Are we going to be okay?”

He stared at me, and we were both absolutely still. His face didn’t change expressions, but one, large tear rolled down the left side of his face.

“I want you to understand something,” he began, gently. “I don’t care if we are living in a tent in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere – if our family is together, we will be more than okay.”

And I believed it. Maybe even more importantly, he believed it. In that single sentence, I knew Dad had a testimony of family. I knew his family meant everything to him. I knew he was grateful for me, for my siblings, for my mom, and that the very nature of family relationships is eternal. I didn’t understand “financial burden” or “fraudulent business practices,” or that Hostess Twinkies were “empty calories.” But I understood that my dad loved me and that our family would survive anything that came our way – because we would be together.

The Proclamation on the family states “fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” I don’t know that I ever felt more protected than I did in the assurance from my dad that the most important thing to him was to have me, and all of our family, together, no matter what else was happening.