how I feel about that

It may surprise people to know this, but I used to go to a shrink. Another surprise: it was not because I’m crazy; I just forgot how to sleep.

Therapy isn’t like the olden days, when you were asked how you feel about that by a bearded and bespectacled older man, who encouraged you to badmouth your mother and talk about your dreams and return weekly for the rest of your life. You deal with each crisis as it comes, with months, even years, of untherapeutic living in between. That’s how it was with me. I’d get nervous about something, stop sleeping, and make an appointment.

In one session, I talked about my father. I was troubled by one of his oft-repeated offers: “You want it? I’ll buy it.” Truth is there was no question; it was more of a run-on sentence.

Dad would utter this for everything while we were on vacation—often, embarrassingly, in front of a store owner to whom I was only being polite when I said those fancy jeans were cool. (A $250 pair of jeans is not cool.) While I was never rolling in dough, I would still sneak away to buy, with my own money, the things I wanted or needed—even when I was forty.

When Beth and I were kids, our family was lower than lower-middle class. But we didn’t know we were poor because we had everything: tiny black and white Luskin’s TVs and Realistic stereos and shag carpeting in our bedrooms. I had a pink princess phone, and my sister had a regular blue one. I wanted to go to NYU for college, but my dad said it would kill my mother if I left, so he bought me a car as a bribe. After he did, we couldn’t even afford Towson University, which was only about $20 a credit back then. My great aunt paid my tuition for a year, and I didn’t find out until a decade or more later.

When I discovered how poor we really were back then (after hearing stories about my mom hocking her engagement ring to pay the phone bill), I assumed we’d had all those things because my dad didn’t want us to know we were poor. But maybe it was because he traveled often and felt like it was the only way he could show his affection, since time with us was not an option.

But twenty years ago, he began doing well in his career. He was home, but we were gone. And the gifts got bigger. And as his generosity grew, so did his insistence that we accept his offers.

“You want it I’ll buy it” became his mantra. He didn’t want his girls to go without anything. I was pregnant, and my dad didn’t want me to fix the carburetor of my six-year-old, paid-off Honda Civic; I needed a new $35,000 Pathfinder. He paid most of the lease.

Critics—my friends, my brother-in-law, even my husband—thought I was spoiled. Marty and I would argue about it at the dinner table—about how many times I said no to something before I was just plain worn out. The badgering was relentless. I said no to a new car at least a dozen times. “I hate to see you drive that thing. It’s not safe for my grandchild,” he would tell me, often before hello.

What I learned in therapy was that this was how my father said he loved us. Saying no to his gifts was the equivalent of rejecting his love. So I began handling it differently, bartering, accepting a few offers with effusive gratitude. I promised I would let my father know when I found something I really wanted. I even began asking for things I needed.

This is one reason I worry so much about him now. Since his last cancer treatment, he has become so weak and sick. He was still going to work through his third chemotherapy infusion. In fact, I can’t remember him missing work or even being sick with a cold more than a handful of times in my life, except for surgeries on his broken leg. But he’s not been to his office since October. In the hospital and at rehab these months, he sometimes just stared into space, not even turning on the TV, not reading a book or a magazine.

If he’s not at work—where he feels valuable and important—he’s not maintaining his income. And he’s not able to offer us gifts to let us know he loves us.

At almost 75, he is finally realizing that we know. We have always known.

– – – – –

A little more about my dad here.

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  1. Max Crace January 20, 2012 at 1:44 am #

    Leslie, I liked it.

  2. Janet January 20, 2012 at 1:51 am #

    This is so bittersweet. I will never forget my Dad going to Best & Co and asking me "do you want anything?" I handed him a pendant and asked him to buy me the matching ring (like it was free or something) I still feel horrible that I asked him for that, but still feel touched that he bought it for me.

  3. Anonymous January 20, 2012 at 1:58 am #

    Beautiful and heartfelt. As usual, I love your stories. I feel a special affinity for this subject as my care for my father has significantly increased this year and your father reminds me very much of mine. My father was a fireman and then a fire chief and was often gone from the home, but never wanted us to go without. Being a military family, we were certainly not wealthy and I know my parents struggled to provide for us. My father showed love by giving us things and to this day is extremely generous, but he does sometimes sit there looking off into space as he grows older and it's hard for me to see that.


  4. Kim Hosey January 20, 2012 at 2:14 am #

    This really is beautiful, Leslie. Your dad sounds wonderful. Complicated and conflicted like we all are, but mostly a wonderful father.

  5. Kathryn January 20, 2012 at 2:15 am #

    Got a lump in my throat..very moving.This is so true of men in our fathers' generation, that they had such a truncated vocabulary for showing love, and the buying of things and giving of money was top of the list. My dad bought me a car when I was 17 that I never asked for and left at home for the 2 years I was in school in DC. It was many years later that I realized how hard it must have been for him to swing that purchase and I didn't understand or appreciate it.

  6. jo(e) January 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    Beautifully said.

  7. Mike Rhoden January 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    Beautiful, Leslie.

  8. Aunt Teena January 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Very heartfelt and real. Most of us can probably relate to some part of this.

  9. Keri January 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Oh my dear girl… Your dad sounds so wonderful. You honor him with your words as they are filled with love.

    What a wonderful tribute to his role in your life.

  10. Sunshine January 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    I liked it. Now please hand me a tissue.

  11. Leslie F. Miller January 20, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

    @Kathryn Yes, surely it's a generational thing. We are all touchy feely with the lovey dovies these days. And we don't make as much money as our parents.

  12. Sanzi Studio January 21, 2012 at 12:57 am #

    I believe that every daughter should have a doting father. It's a rite (and yes, I know the difference between right and rite).

  13. Brownie January 22, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    You made me cry. I love your dad (your whole family). I don't like that he's sick. Even more, I don't like that there's nothing I can say or do to make it better.

    Love you.

  14. patrick February 7, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Not once did my father say he loved me. Not once did I say I loved him. Not once did we hug one another. I don't know if it was a midwest thing or just a guy thing. When my brothers and I were kids, dad would shake our hands goodnight. There were no kisses from our mother.

    (Yes, I know… that probably explains a lot.)

    My dad died rather suddenly almost twenty years ago. He had been ill to an extent only he and his doctor knew. Once, during his brief, five- or six-day stay in the hospital, I rubbed his feet. I can't recall now what spurred me to do that—perhaps he had been complaining of cramps—but it was as close as I'd ever come to uttering the three words neither of us had spoken to each other.

  15. Leslie F. Miller February 7, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    @patrick My god. I'm so sorry. I don't think it's a guy thing or a Midwest thing. I think it's in your family history. Again, I'm sorry.

  16. patrick February 7, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    I guess the point I was getting at (which I so miserably failed to mention) was that despite the not-so-ideal relationship we had while I was growing up (my dad belonged to the threat-of-pain school of parenting), we came to appreciate each other's company as we grew older. And while those three words were never spoken, they didn't need to be. I knew. He knew.

  17. Leslie F. Miller February 7, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    @patrick Fair enough. As a person of words, I find that one without the other is less preferable. I want the feelings; I want the words.

    Perhaps I made it seem as though my dad didn't say it. He said it all the time. And he showed it. The buying was just icing on the emotions.

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