“You’re a good man, son.”
I could hear the shakiness in my dad, Brett’s, voice as he pulled me in for the final bear hug of the weekend. “I’m really going to miss you, Chris,” he continued. “Let’s not let another year go by before we see each other.”
I could hear my guilt in his goodbye. Truth is, I deserved it.
“Thanks, dad. I’ll be seeing you again soon, don’t you worry,” I said quickly, trying to console him.
As I walked in the airport terminal, my eyes welled up with emotion until they overflowed.
After all these years, airport au revoirs haven’t gotten any easier. And neither has seeing my dad cry.
I checked in and made my way to the gate, but I couldn’t shake the image of my father tearing up as we bid farewell. Honestly, I can count the number of times on both hands that I’ve seen my dad cry. The specialness of the moment stuck with me and I began to savor a different portion of it each time I replayed it in my mind. The strength of his grip conveyed how proud he was of me as he pulled me in to embrace. The stubbornness I knew growing up dissipated and was replaced by tenderness in the form of a gentle kiss on my forehead. Beyond the tears, a smile emerged, and the walls of time and space that stood between us crumbled in the presence of love.
I arrived at my gate with well over an hour to spare. I pulled out The Second Mountain by David Brooks and picked up reading where I last left off. But, after just a few paragraphs, a singular phrase kept popping into my head:
His tears are your tears.
His tears are your tears.
His tears are your tears.
In this unifying moment, I realized a humbling truth: Our tears were one in the same; I really am my father’s son. And I turned out to be a good man because a good man raised me.
He struggled and sacrificed as a divorced single parent. He put a roof over my head and food in my mouth—and taught me to be grateful for both. He showed me right from wrong. He gave up on his dreams so I could one day pursue my own.
I remember our humble apartment in the suburbs of Baltimore where we spent over a decade living together, just the two of us. In my mind’s eye, I see my dad—younger and more vibrant—sipping a cold beer as I enter from the living room. He smiles at six-or-seven-year-old me and beckons me to come closer. I sit at the kitchen table with him as we watch the Orioles play on TV with the windows open and the volume up high. The sticky air of late spring sways the curtains as we watch baseball together as father and son.
I recall memories of soccer tournaments and award ceremonies, my first pet turtle and my first computer, our first trip to Vermont and our first family reunion in Maine—priceless quality time spent laughing, bonding and learning from him. He spent years leading by example—not just telling but showing me how to be a man of respect and good repute; my dad is, and always was, my world.
Sometimes in life, we distort the facts to fit our feelings. And so it was with my childhood. I often mistook my dad’s quieter brand of strength and support to mean that he didn’t care. But he was always the one silently sacrificing on my behalf—fully aware that his decisions were the foundation upon which I would build the life I have today. He knew that the sweat from his brow would be worth it for me to have a future brighter than the one he was given. Somehow, he understood that he was planting the seeds for my own success, even if it meant that he would never again have it for himself.
As my plane took off down the runway to head back to New York, another realization swept over me: I’ve spent my life soaring because my father was selfless. My dad made compromises and concessions so that I could one day capture a happiness all my own.
Well, dad, I’m happy to say that I found it. And it was all worth it. I can never repay the debt I owe you. But I hope these words show you just how much I appreciate the sacredness of your gifts to me. I wouldn’t be the man I am without you. I love you.
1. My father sacrificed his career for my childhood.
The first sacrifice my father made on my behalf changed the course of my entire childhood. Just before I began elementary school, my dad left his corporate job traveling the country for a major automotive company and took a demotion as the manager of one of the shops in the suburbs of Baltimore. “If I had stayed in my job with the home office, I would have rarely been home with you,” he told me years later. “I knew how badly you needed me and I made a tough choice.”
Indeed. But he made it look so easy.
He put my needs ahead of his own. He understood the importance of his presence as my father. He knew it would be harder on him financially as a single parent, but he did it anyway.
I marvel at the grace with which I was blessed in that moment. I marvel at the kind of man who could so easily recognize what was in my best interest, and do it—even though it meant putting me first. I marvel at the kindness and generosity and compassion it took to make that decision on behalf of a little boy who just didn’t know any better.
I’m in awe of you, dad. Thank you for this act of unconditional love. I promise to use my life to continue to pay it forward to others.
2. My father sacrificed his mind for my heart.
I was just six years old when I stood up for myself for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.
Time and time again, I challenged my father to adapt to my point of view. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps and play baseball. But I chose to play soccer. He wanted me to be a “meat and potatoes” kind of guy just like him. But I just wasn’t that type. He wanted—just like so many other fathers—for his son to grow up and marry a nice woman. But I was born gay.
At every turn, he did his best to clear away the ideas he had for me and instead support the realities of who I was becoming. Never was that tougher or more challenging than when I came out to him as a freshman in high school.
There were tough conversations. There were extended periods of awkward silence and tension. There were moments where I didn’t know how we’d make it through.
But there was never a lack of love. Even in his silence, he was rearranging his past to fit the truth of my future. Gradually, then suddenly, we made our way back to one another. Forgiveness stepped in and wiped the slate clean of judgment. And returned us to love.
While each of my dad’s sacrifices was sacred and tough in their own right, his willingness to see things differently paved the way for our bond to grow ever closer.
And that’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world.
3. My father sacrificed his health for my humanity.
Not all sacrifices are made actively and consciously. But they are sacrifices nonetheless.
The final concession my dad made for me is one such example.
Brett had a stroke in June of 2004, which rendered him legally blind, never to drive a car or return to work again. He had to relearn how to read and write. He was forced, after so many years of hard work, to suddenly stop and slow down. He was gifted the opportunity to take on a new struggle of his own.
Watching him rebuild taught me many things. And it taught him many more. Seeing my father’s heart soften and open to the world has shown me that vulnerability is a sign of strength. Witnessing his spiritual growth and reconnection to something larger and grander has shown me that I, too, belong to a force greater than I can ever name or know. And being granted the gift of his tears has shown me that no expression of love is ever wasted; in reality, it’s all that we leave behind.
As my father ages, I understand more and more what really matters because I not only have the opportunity to see the world through his eyes, I realize that his eyes are my eyes. And it’s my duty to use them to look for the beauty and love in everything, and savor it with all the time I’ll be granted in this form.
Thank you, dad, for demonstrating firsthand the precious impermanence of life. I vow to cherish the one you’ve granted me. And hold you close in my heart. Always.
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What are some of the sacrifices your father made for you? Tell me in the comments—or Tweet me @crackliffe.