Family

GUEST POST: My Dad Just Died; These Five Fatherhood Lessons He Taught Me Live On

By: Gary Schneeberger

While I was in Boston on business a few weeks ago, I picked up a Father’s Day card for my Dad at a tony downtown stationery shop. I’ve long been both a card guy and a card snob, so the simple but elegant bifold printed on recycled paper drew me like catnip entices a tabby.

On its outside it simply says, “I love you, dad” – with the subtle flourish of the period at the end of the sentiment being a red heart. It’s blank on the inside, offering ample room to write my own thoughts and recollections, my own expressions of love and appreciation.

But I will not be giving that card to my Dad this year. He died May 25, at age 93.

In the days since, as I’ve stumbled about a fair bit of the time in the emotional dark, I’ve grabbed that card on more than a dozen occasions and flipped it around in my hands – still sealed in its plastic sheath. In each instance, I’ve thought of something else I want to tell him on its inside flap.

Maybe the notions that have floated to the top most often will offer other fathers some parenting insights their children will one day want to commemorate in their Father’s Day cards. So, here are five things I’ve benefitted from and will always cherish about what my Dad poured into me. I pray they encourage and equip you on your fatherhood journey.

  • Show and tell. As an old journalist, I’ve had “Show, don’t tell” drummed into my head since the first time I typed under a byline. It’s a common editor’s exhortation to bring a story alive with word pictures rather than just words. But the real-life application of that old saw is a bit more nuanced.

Life has taught me, and my Dad was the chief tutor, that hearing the words “I love you” is critical to feeling loved. In the early 2000s, when men’s retreats were the rage in evangelical churches, I attended many a weekend gathering during which I heard a familiar refrain: “My Dad has never told me he loves me.” The men who said it had suffered under the lack of having those words explicitly spoken to them and over them – even if they would otherwise describe their home life as including a father whose actions were loving.

Having difficulty expressing tender emotions themselves – to their kids and/or their wife – was the most common struggle for those men whose dads did not both show and speak their love. Hearing their stories made me realize how blessed I was that my Dad, from my earliest days, was comfortable giving voice, as well as action, to his love for and support of me. It has allowed me to be, as cliched as culture would like to make it, “in touch with my emotions.” It has granted me lifelong permission to share from my heart.

  • Sign for yourself. I got what will turn out to be my last birthday card from my Dad this past February, when I turned 56. As I have done every year since I was a teenager, during those awkward years after my parents divorced and I saw less of him, I inspected the signature inside. I was checking to see if he signed “Dad” himself, or if my stepmother signed for both of them. As he had done every year since I was a teenager, he did indeed put his own pen to paper.

Why does that mean so much? It’s evidence that even during the many years we lived in different states, when first for him and then for me the busyness of adulting kept us out of close contact more than either of us liked, he would take the time, and make the effort, to ensure I knew he stopped to think about me, celebrate me. I’ve held on to pretty much every card he ever signed for the five decades I was his son. Today, they are a rich time capsule of Dad’s love for me, each signature a looping pat on the head, a virtual hug. I treasure every stroke.

  • Laugh. I last talked to my Dad a day before he died. He was understandably sad and worried because my stepmother had recently fallen and broken her hip – and he found himself in a position he had not been in much for the 45 years they were together: without her. I did my best to cheer him up and at some point, he said something that made us both chuckle.

When he passed away less than 24 hours later, I tried to remember what it was we laughed about. I couldn’t. I was upset initially at my lack of recollection, but the more I dug at my memories to extract what had been so funny, I found some peace about it. And soon I had joy about it. It was better, I realized, that the specifics escaped me – what mattered wasn’t the details, but that he and I had shared a laugh together as one of the last things we’d ever share together.

I like that, celebrate that, to be honest, as a final memory. Because so many other laughs, thousands of them, preceded it. It could have been any of the old stories that were so key to our relationship for so long, or it could have been something he’d never said until that day that just tickled me. It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine – but it’s also a premiere bonding agent. It was one of the drops of glue that held the two of us together through circumstances that sometimes taunt every relationship.

  • Model contrition. My Dad, who was a police officer before retiring when I was 19, told me something interesting after I got my driver’s license. He said that, as an accident investigator, he had been instructed to never apportion responsibility for a crash completely to a single party. Even if your car is hit when you’ve parked it on the side of the street and you’re home in bed, he said, an accident is 3 percent or so your fault because you parked there. Although I don’t recall him ever extrapolating the point out to a life principle – i.e., it’s hard to bump through life without running into situations for which you’re going to need to apologize — that’s the way I internalized the lesson.

Dad must have, as well, because “I’m sorry” was a phrase in his relational toolbelt he was not afraid to use. He apologized to me, my siblings, my stepmother, throughout his life. Did he do it every time one of us thought he should? Of course not. But he was not afraid, or ashamed, to acknowledge when he was in the wrong.

The most powerful example of that trait I ever witnessed was at my Mom’s funeral. They did not have an easy marriage – because neither was ultimately easy for the other to live with. They made mistakes – serious ones, even. I watched Dad acknowledge that, in front of all of his children, at Mom’s wake. During the family visitation time before the service, as my brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and I alternately cried and stepped to the casket to say goodbye to Mom for the final time, Dad stayed pretty much to himself in a side room.

Grief blinded me to even noticing how he was distancing himself until I saw him at her casket. He had kneeled before it, before her, his head down and whispering inside. He stayed for several minutes – making his peace with the mother of his children. I never asked him about what he said, or why he felt he needed to do it. The first was none of my business; the second was self-evident. I never respected or admired my father more than I did in that moment. He had gifted his sons and daughters with an example of what seeking forgiveness means.

  • Make time to make memories. I have photo albums full of time spent with my Dad – my Little League games, family vacations, holiday gatherings, the rarer visits of my adulthood after we both moved away from our hometown. But the books, and the pictures in them, represent just a sliver of the memories I have of my Dad, the memories he made sure to leave me with. The times when I was more important than work, more fun to play catch with than watching the pros playing catch. Times when he made it clear to me I was a son who had inspired his father’s pride.

Dad had a running game with me from the time I was in single digits, the youngest of his five children. I’m not sure if he ever did it with my siblings, and I frankly don’t care if he did. Because every time he did it with me, he made me feel like he had created it just for me.

He would ask, “What can Dads do? … and trained me to reply “Anything.” I must have said it thousands of times from the late 1960s till just a few days before he died. Long ago, after the first few times I suspect, my reply had stopped being something I was taught and had become something I had learned.

Now it is something I will never forget.

Gary Schneeberger is the president of ROAR, a public-relations firm headquartered in his hometown of Kenosha, Wis. He served Focus on the Family from 2000 to 2012, ending his tenure as vice president of communications. He is honored to be stepfather to Alyssa, 20, and Hunter, 19.

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