Sunday, June 15, 2008

Chicken Soup: Happy Father's Day

Three Little Words

As the four of us stood in my father’s living room, his brand-new bride, Claudia, smiled and reached out her arms. “Before Don and Bonnie go,” she said, “how about all of us hug, kiss, and say, ‘I love you’?”

I froze. I stared at her, at my wife, Bonnie, at my eighty-three-year-old father, Oliver. Would he actually say those three little words—to me?


You see, my father and I had seen very little of each other over the years. His first wife, my mother, Fern, nearly died when I was born. Then when my younger brother, Dean, was born three years later, she collapsed completely. After being hospitalized for many years, she suffered a fatal heart attack. So we boys were brought up mostly by our two grandmothers.

Oliver was a proud, outgoing father at first. But the years of my mother’s illness wore on him, especially after we boys went to northern Wisconsin to live with Granny Hanson. For all we knew, he might have blamed us for our mother’s illness and eventual death. After that, we only got to see him on his once-a-year vacations.

Then when I was thirteen, our father married again, to a young widow with a daughter just my age. “We’ll all be one big happy family,” Oliver announced, “at our new home out in California. You boys and I will be together at last. Won’t that be wonderful?”

But Dean and I had been too many years without our father, and we hungered for his complete attention, for him to hug us and say, “I love you.” Our new stepsister competed just as vigorously for her mother’s love. So no matter how hard Oliver and his new wife, Jean, tried, our newly “blended” family refused to blend—especially me. It didn’t seem fair to have to share my dad after so many years of missing him. Finally, my father gave up and sent me 2,000 miles away to live again with Granny Hanson.

When I was fifteen, my beloved grandmother died. After that, I lived with various relatives. Finally, at sixteen I missed my father so much I worked all summer on a farm, saved every penny, and took a one-way trip out West. How I looked forward to our reunion.

But my father and his wife didn’t. Everything had been peaceful with me out of the way, and my stepmother didn’t want to risk having trouble again. So instead of welcoming me home, Dad sent me to the local YMCA. I stayed there, working on local farms, until the day I turned seventeen. Then, convinced there was no hope for me to ever be with my father again, I joined the Army.

Struck by a mortar in Korea, I spent several years in hospitals in Japan and the States. When I had recovered enough, I enrolled in college in Illinois. Eventually I graduated, started seminary, and met and married Bonnie. My dad did come from California for the wedding—the first time I’d seen him in eight years. But we had no time for catching up and sharing. He stayed with relatives and soon left for California again.

After my stepmother died, Oliver married again. By this time Bonnie and I had three little boys and wanted him to meet them, so we traveled to California. My new ­stepmother, Rosalie, a warm, loving person and talented artist, tried to make us welcome. But with my father we still seemed to be company, not family. He was even reserved with his young grandsons. When they ran to hug him, he stopped them with, “Men don’t hug; they shake hands.” Would I never hear from him those three little words I’d been waiting to hear all my life?

Eventually we moved to California ourselves, close enough to visit occasionally. By now, after years of being a stock accountant, entrepreneur, and jazz clarinetist, my father had retired from his “day jobs”—but was more active in music than ever. Then Rosalie began ailing and finally passed away. By now Dad was eighty-three and in great health. My own sons were grown, and I was thrilled at the fine young men they had become. Yet after all these years, I doubted that my own dad and I would ever have that warm father-son relationship my sons and I have.

But I hadn’t counted on Claudia. A widow herself and professional artist, she had helped care for Rosalie during her lingering illness. After Rosalie died, Claudia and Oliver discovered that they had developed a great fondness for each other. Although they hesitated, I encouraged them to get married. In fact, as a pastor myself, I offered to marry them!

Now the joyful wedding party was over, with just the four of us left. “Let’s all hug, kiss, and say, ‘I love you,’” the new bride had suggested. Bonnie and I, of course, were more than willing. But what about Dad?

At first he looked shocked. Then suddenly he glowed. Reaching out trembling arms, he said, “I love you” to each one of us individually. Including me! And he hugged and kissed me for the first time in over forty years!

My father lived for ten more years, doing three gigs a week, even at ninety-three. In fact, Bonnie and I played in one of his bands. He got to know our sons and grandsons and became not just a photo but part of the family. Those three little words had unlocked a lifetime of waiting love, and we had some wonderful times together during his remaining years.

Oh, how thankful I am for the power of those three little words, and I say them to my own sons as often as possible.

“I love you.” And I mean it!

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