Excerpt from “Love You, Dad”
Every daughter has a “dad story”—a cherished tale that encapsulates her relationship with the man who helped bring her into the world. Mine, as it happens, involves a dog bite. My kids love this tale, and my father, who came to my rescue, loves to tell it.
It’s right before Father’s Day. We’re all lounging by the pool deck, and Grandpa’s just getting to the good part. My kids, five-year-old Mackenzie and seven-year-old Chase, are riveted. Mouths agape, they resemble two frozen statues as they stand before him. All that moves is the pool water dripping from their bathing suits.
“Your mother was right around your age,” he’s saying. “And the first thing we heard was the sound of her crying: ‘Waa! Waa! Waa!’ ”
Mackenzie looks relieved. The story is exactly the same as last time.
“But then we see her, and her eye was hanging out like this,” he says holding his hand in front of his cheekbone like a catcher’s mitt.
“Was there a lot of blood?” asks Chase.
“Yes!” Grandpa says enthusiastically. “So much we couldn’t see her face.”
Mackenzie nods, knowingly.
“Was the eye out out,” asks Chase, always double-checking, “or just sort of out?”
Grandpa cocks his head and thinks a minute. This is the grand finale, and he knows it.
“Dangling!” he finally declares.
“Ewwwww,” they both say in unison and, completely sated, jump into the pool.
They already know that the story has a happy ending: Dad races his daughter to the E.R., just in time. Sixty-seven stitches and a lot of luck later, their mom has 20/20 vision.
“Thanks, Dad,” I say 40 years later. “For the eyeball.” We both laugh. And everything else, I want to add. But I don’t.
My father isn’t the touchy-feely type, given to expressing his emotions. But every time he tells this story, I realize how much he loves me. Reflecting on his unstoppable heroism and the knowledge that he’s always been there for me, no matter what, I am flooded with love and gratitude—for how much I owe him, and how much he’s shaped me over the years. In my family as in so many others, we never put that stuff—the really important stuff—into words. We communicate it all through code. Humor is one way, and showing up for each other is another.
We have always been a family of doers, rather than talkers. The Dalai Lama once observed that the purpose of human life is to help one another. My dad taught me that lesson by example. One time, he patiently extracted 19 splinters from my leg. He’s moved me in and out of more dorm rooms and apartments than I can count. He takes my house maintenance issues as seriously as his own. When he misses us, he’ll call to breezily announce, “Gotta drop off some stuff your mother bought you.” Then he’ll get in the car for a ten-hour round-trip errand.
But the L word, we avoid. I remember the chilly November morning when Dad called my dorm room to tell me my beloved grandmother had passed away. There was a moment of silence. My heart lodged in my throat. “I love you,” I managed to blurt. “Yup,” he replied and hung up the phone. Embarrassed, I looked at the dead receiver in my hand and realized I probably should have offered to come home and change a lightbulb.
Yet I know I need to express these feelings, and he needs to hear them. That’s why Father’s Day presents an annual challenge. Often, a card is not enough to express the love and appreciation a father deserves.
So I turned to my animal friends, those rock stars of the animal kingdom who capture the true spirit of fatherhood. Perhaps they can help us articulate something we don’t have the words to say ourselves. For example, male sea horses give birth. Male catfish carry marble-size eggs in their mouths for six weeks, surviving off their own body fat as they nurture their young. And, of course, there are Emperor penguins, who starve and freeze for two long months in order to protect the egg— balanced on their feet—that holds their baby chick. These ani- mal fathers’ selfless instincts—to care and protect, to love and nurture—helped inspire me to write this book.
It was those kinds of paternal impulses that helped me through a particularly rough patch a few years ago. My parents, who had been visiting me at my home in Washington, D.C., were about to begin their drive back to New York.
I was not in a good place. It was clear that my ten-year marriage was over, and I was terrified at the prospect of being a single mom while dealing with the demands of a full-time job.
When my father came to say goodbye, I couldn’t help it: The dam broke, and I burst into tears. Since expressing emotion is far outside our family’s comfort zone, I was expecting a glib retort to break the tension, or perhaps a platitude before he dashed to the safety of the car. Instead, my father sat down beside me. He didn’t say anything to try to make me feel better, because he knew that nothing he could say would. I cried and cried, and he simply stayed with me, allowing the painful dignity of the truth to begin the healing process. It was an incredible act of bravery. When I finished crying, he nodded and patted my hand. We looked at each other. “Yup,” I told him. Every child has their own way of expressing love for their father. I hope the book you hold in your hands—and the animal ambassadors in it—will help you do just that. In bestowing it, you’ll be sending a simple but powerful message: “Thanks Dad, for everything. I love you.”
Excerpted from Love You, Dad by Melina Gerosa Bellows. Copyright © 2012 by Melina Gerosa Bellows. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.