Remember when you were little and your dad was the strongest man in the world? If it needed to be built, fixed, lifted or carried, he was your guy—the strongest man in the world. This was back when mastery of the remote control belonged to him alone because he was the king of the castle, and also the only one who could figure out how to work the damn thing. Back then he could slay all the monsters under your bed and was a genius at your 100-piece jigsaw puzzles. This was when you really believed that the swing set he built you from scratch was actually a gift Santa left at the hardware store, and the reflection off his watch face was Tinkerbelle dancing on your wall. He kissed the boo-boos, read the books, played the games and videotaped the recitals that made up your childhood.
Dad, the strongest and smartest man in the world—just ask him. I mean, who at age 8 wouldn’t rather learn the algebraic way to solve a long-division problem? So what if your teacher wants you to “show your work,” Dad knows the right way. The science fair? Forget about your painted Styrofoam universe, he’s got an experiment so fantastic he’ll do it for you! Oh, and you will win the pinewood derby. It’s a matter of pride.
Back then, Dad’s was a lovable dictatorship, with a ruler who governed without opposition based solely on the premise that he was your father, he loved you, and he was always right.
That was back then, but that was a long time ago.
That was before you began playing music too loudly and hanging out with kids who were going nowhere. Before every question was an inquisition and every answer a defiance. During those times, of course, he was the most unreasonable man in the world, the one who didn’t understand what you were going through and whose mission in life was to bring misery to yours.
How dare he ask you to set the table or mow the lawn? God forbid he ask you where you were going, and a curfew? What was this, communism?
The adolescent’s struggle with the wisdom of authority is as old as authority itself and never fails to manifest at just the age when wisdom is needed most. It’s as if one day we wake as teenagers seeking to run straight into a series of brick walls, and that first brick wall is always named Dad.
And so we waste a good five, maybe 10 years, with arguments about politics we know nothing of and lifestyles we can’t even appreciate. We fight for the sake of fighting, figuring it’s what we’re supposed to do, and forgetting what it was like to communicate using inside voices. It was like we were speaking two different languages, and maybe we were.
If I’d only known that “my way is the right way” meant “I don’t want you to suffer the same mistakes,” or that “stop dating that loser” meant “please don’t replace me,” and “why do you wanna live in that crappy place” meant “I miss you, please come home.”
A decade of “I love you”s, lost in translation.
As the wisdom of age replaces the fury of youth, you begin to understand his language and the world seems to right itself from the cockeyed perception of your teenage years. It’s never until you’re an adult that you see just how hard every step you took was for the one walking behind you, and that watching you fall was simply more heartbreaking than he could express.
I’ve been an adult, I suppose, for years, and though I’d begun to understand the language, it wasn’t until I got married that I truly saw my father’s strength. In the movies, fathers only complain about the wedding costs and the ridiculous overuse of tulle. In real life, the price per head is still a point of contention, but that’s not really what the fuss is all about. Turns out, fathers would pay triple the cost to avoid giving their little girl away, and all that griping is just to distract themselves from the day they’ve been dreading since she was born. But if you can pry yourself away from Brides magazine long enough to look, you can see it in the little things he does during that time: the way he arranges the centerpieces or helps shop for the flowers, his stress over his speech, or the time he spends scouring the Internet to find the perfect song for your father-daughter dance. You’ll know by the way he looks at you in your dress with a mixture of pride and nausea and the way he won’t let go as you line up for your entrance.
On my wedding day, my father was perfect—he charmed the guests, he gave the speech, he smiled for the pictures, he paid the bill. But most importantly, he held my hand.
He held my hand, and he kissed my cheek, and because I asked him to, he gave me away. At that moment, as I let go of his hand to hold the one of my husband, I saw again the strongest man in the world.