Earlier this week, I wrote about how delighted I was to finally get junk mail from my grad school. It was the proof I needed to convince myself that it wasn’t all a dream…that I had in fact gotten the degree I had struggled to earn for far too many years. What finally got me to actually finish the degree long after my heart was no longer in it was a phone call from my mother during which she dropped the most devastating weapon in her arsenal: an emotional nuclear bomb that rained all over my angst-ridden psyche. “Just finish it for your father’s sake. It would mean so much to him. Please. Do this one last thing for him, before he dies,” she said to me over the phone in a quavering voice. It was a bravura performance, which could have won her an Oscar. It spurred me to drag my heaving flanks across the finish line, staggering and gasping all the way. Although my dad was in perfect health at the time, my mother wasn’t exaggerating about one thing. It did mean a lot to him. I wrote this essay five years ago about my father’s reaction when I finally received my Ph.D., but it always felt too personal to share. It still feels too personal, but I’m banking on the fact that my dad will never read this. Besides, after writing about being seen naked by my in-laws, what is there left to hide?
The words “I love you” have never, not once, either on purpose or by accident, ever fallen from my father’s lips. It’s not that he doesn’t feel genuine love. I think he worships my mother. His children know that he loves them deeply in his own way. It’s outward, obvious expressions of love that make him uncomfortable.
When we were little, we used to always give my mom and dad a goodnight kiss. One day, when I was about five, I kissed my mom, and then went to kiss my dad. As I drew near, he said, “You don’t have to do that,” and fended me off with a stiff arm. I froze in mortified hurt and wordlessly slunk off to bed. We never touched each other again until the day I went to college. My parents were about to drive back home after helping me unload my things and dropping me off at my dormitory. My mother gathered me into her arms as if I were five rather than seventeen. She kissed me and then hugged me for a long time as if she never intended to let me go, all the while tenderly whispering into my ear all of her hopes and dreams for me. When she finally did let me go, she wiped the tears from her eyes and urged me to give my father a hug. Deeply embarrassed, I tentatively approached him and awkwardly held out my arms to him. He patted me stiffly on the back and turned to leave with an “O.K., well, see ya.”
My mom is a woman who almost always gets what she wants when she wants it. One day she summoned all her considerable powers of persuasion to get my father to say the three words she’d never heard from him.
“Just say it,” she cajoled, “I won’t even look at you. Please, just once.”
My dad remained uncomfortably mute.
Never one to give up a battle and completely unaccustomed to failure, my mother tried a hundred different ways to get him to say those words.
Exhausted and demoralized, she tried a final tactic. “I’ll say it first and then you say it back to me…I love you.”
There was a long silence, and then finally he mustered a sheepish, “Me too.” She gave up. It was the best he could do.
Shortly after I defended my dissertation and was finally awarded my Ph.D., I got a letter from my dad addressed to Dr. Adrienne X. It was written on pages and pages of his favorite yellow lined pads. It must have taken him ages to write that letter. In his barely decipherable handwriting I read very formal words of congratulations and advice about my future. In those words I know he was really saying: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
I love you too, Dad.