I was at my dad’s office the other day. I swiveled in his chair, read the book spines that lined the shelves, checked my email from his computer, tried out his ink pens, counted the unused coffee mugs, rifled through papers on his desk and read everything hanging on the walls. I felt like a little girl again, half-proud, like I owned the space around me by some genetic default. I enjoyed the security of his world, of seeing him represented through the physical objects decorating his space, as if books and diplomas help you truly know someone.
But it’s not everything. It’s not enough.
My dad worked a lot when I was growing up. I didn’t know the term then, but “workaholic” would have fit. He worked all the time. My childhood memories include knowing he was at work and missing him.
I remember those moments he would come home from a long day away: He brought the sense of the exotic every evening, and I was fascinated with him in those first moments of arrival. At those times, he felt like a mystery to be unraveled. Dad was a police officer when I was a small. To me, he seemed almost mythical, an iconic form of blue and black and steel with a hat to match. He wore a gun, handcuffs, and a bullet-studded belt and smelled like sweat, sun, metal and hot polyester. I’d watch him unload a nightstick from his belt. Pennies and spare bullets scattered on the table in the same handful, rolling in unison. That untouchable gun came off him and onto the closet shelf. I marveled at his handcuffs and quickly modeled my first chunky bangle bracelet set. I’d try to wear his clip-on tie . The shiny skeleton handcuff key fascinated me for its delicate nature alone, not to mention usefulness in imaginary games. In those moments he was the more of a myth than my father, a life separate from me, the person I wanted more of, yet someone just beyond my reach. Bedtime was too soon after this sweeping re-entry into my life, and there never seemed to be enough of him.
I don’t think this fascinated attraction with the coming-home ritual was because he wore a uniform to work. If he had worn a suit I would have been fascinated with a leather briefcase and fancy pens and button-down oxfords, just because they were his.
It’s easy to look back now and qualify my feelings, to add labels to emotions and reflexively counter-balance my feelings with understanding the importance of a paycheck to everyday existence. But five- and six- and seven-year-old feelings don’t do this, or at least I didn’t. I just knew what was.
I do have other childhood memories — us on a motorcycle on the way to the grocery or going to the auto-parts store on a Saturday — but when I think of my dad and my childhood I have a hard time separating him from his work. It’s part of the context of him to me, part of his identity as Dad. It may go back to the striking impression his coming-home ritual made on me. Who knows, maybe the simple act of transitioning from work to home only emphasized the dynamic between the two worlds. But a wardrobe change can only partially explain the attitudes behind his actions.
When I was eight, Dad stopped being a police officer and earned two graduate degrees and began to teach during rest of my childhood. All of which still involved hard work, long hours, and dedication to a cause that kept him away at an office somewhere. As I got older, I don’t remember feeling especially sympathetic to this cause. I didn’t like Dad working all the time. I didn’t like him bringing home work. His physical location — at work or at home — didn’t matter. He was still working.
I can’t change the fact that my dad worked so much during my childhood or the fact that my dad works a lot now that I’m an adult. I also can’t change the amount of time I spent missing him and wishing I could have been around him more as I grew up — or the hurt and resentment I felt because of what I did miss.
Now that I’ve grown up, our relationship is different. He’s still my dad, yes, but we relate in a parent-and-adult-child way. And, though I hope he doesn’t, I don’t know if he spends late nights at the office because I don’t live with him. What I do know is that I’ve chosen to forgive him, to release my childhood hurts to God, in an effort to help our relationship move forward. God asks us to forgive, even if the hurts against us aren’t intentional. I’ve also made the choice to get to know him as a person. I want to know him on a deeper level than just his job title. After all, he’s more than that: He’s my dad.