Stranger in a Strange Land

It took me many years to realize that my father was my biggest ally

When I was 17, my dad gave me a compliment. I remember it because I think it was the first one. But it didn't register, because up until that point, nothing I had done was good enough for my dad.

When I was young, he would take us—his seven sons—down to help with his janitorial business at St. Thomas Grade School, the same school I attended. And this was on the Main Line of Philadelphia, the other students had big single houses and we were a family of nine living in a three-bedroom duplex. I thought, "We live in half a house."

One particular night when I was 12, my dad lost it. He threw his wad of keys at me and said, "Jesus Christ! Look at all the spots you missed! Why don't you wake up? You're not going to amount to anything!" and I thought, "Fuck you! Look what you amounted to. You're cleaning toilets."

Then, at 17, I wrote and performed a play that sold out the high school theater two nights in a row. My dad said, "Paul, I've never been so proud in my life! Nothing John did could compare to this." John's my older brother—football hero, MVP. I'm thinking, "Why does he have to bring up John? Why can't he just acknowledge me? Dad can't even give a compliment right!"

For years, Dad was a disappointment. His birthday cards, too—generic Hallmark cards. Why did he have to pay someone else to tell me how he feels? Meanwhile, I was paying a therapist to tell her how I felt about my dad. I just wanted an apology for the times he yelled at me.

I find it easy to apologize to most people. I pride myself on it. In fact, years ago when I was teaching, my seventh-grade students got sick of me apologizing to them for having lost my temper. I never understood why they would tell me there was no need to apologize. Maybe they thought it was appropriate to lose one's temper when students throw things at you.

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I've always seen anger as wrong. Period. It was while teaching and experiencing a classroom of energy- crazed adolescents that I finally understood what it was like for my dad to be dealing with seven sons. My anger wasn't a mistake—it was part of the passion of wanting to make a difference in their lives. In his commitment to me, Dad risked being enraged and disliked. I was out to be better than him; he was out to make me better. Underneath his temper was an intense concern for what he thought was best for me. We all have good intentions but some of us may need to work on our delivery.

At 39, I thought, you know what, I just need to forgive dad. So I went back to my old school where he berated me. As I'm standing outside the window, I realize Dad's not the one I have to forgive. I was being so critical of myself that I couldn't enjoy my life. Nothing was ever good enough for me. Rarely did I permit myself to enjoy a movie or a ballgame without a nagging sense that I should be doing something productive. Sunsets stood for disappointment, showing me that the day was over and I hadn't gotten enough done. As much as I wanted Dad to apologize, I realized I owed him an apology for the anger I had carried for so long.

Apologizing to him was extremely difficult: I'd be changing who I was. When I apologized to the class, I was honoring my ideal of never losing my temper. But apologizing to my dad would mean letting go of what made me better than him. It would mean seeing myself for the self-righteous jerk I could sometimes be.

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The next time we had breakfast, I told dad that I was sorry that he had to deal with the chip on my shoulder. He said I didn't have to apologize for anything. I found myself getting choked up as I told him it meant a lot to me after he saw my first show in high school and said he had never been prouder in his life. For the first time, 30 years after he said it, I let the words in. It moved me deeply.

"Well, I knew how much it hurt you that year not to get a chance playing quarterback," he added.

As he said that, I realized why he brought up John in his compliment all those years ago. He knew how bummed out I was not being starting quarterback. He wanted me to know my writing and performing were incredible talents I could be proud of.

I began seeing past the slights I kept collecting to realize that this man—a stranger to me for so many years—was my biggest ally. My dad was never against me; the world has not been against me.

My mom's love was always obvious, pure and simple. Dad's love can be clumsy, complicated, critical.

His love snuck up on me. We have a lot in common, especially our faltering, expanding hearts.

I looked up at my dad, the man whose features I have inherited: his strong nose, his pale pink skin, his blue eyes and his white thinning hair. Even our smiles matched as we glanced at each other, the right sides rising higher to form a smirk.

"Well, there is something I do have to say." And as tears welled up, I said, "Thank you, Pop." And he has been "Pop" ever since.

Tags: family