The Long Road Back

My dad and I went out to lunch earlier this week. He picked me up from work around 11:45am, and we quickly agreed to head to Granite City. On the ride over, we made small talk about how our respective days were going, work, and family. Due to the lunch rush, we were seated at a table near the brewery side of the restaurant. I would have preferred a booth, but none were available. While my dad decides what he wants, I casually glance around to take in the scene; smartly dressed men and women perusing their menus, the hustle and bustle of activity in the kitchen, the stainless steel fermenters off to my left, silently lording over it all. I order the pepperoni flatbread with a cup of cheddar and ale soup, while my dad chooses the Grilled Chicken Avocado Wrap with a wedge salad. We continue our discussion on work, but at some point, I start to talk about how I started to go to counseling last embarrassed at this admission, as my dad was the first one who introduced me to the benefits of counseling as I entered my adolescent years. He listens intently and speaks as a pause to take a bite of food: So, have you talked to Nate about your childhood?”

Shit. I know exactly what he’s asking with that question. Did he just notice that I almost choked on that pepperoni? What do I say? “Man, the food is delicious!” “How about them Cubs!” I could really use a beer and being in a brewery, this request wouldn’t be hard to meet. Yet, I have to get back to work after lunch, so we’ll have to do this sober…

I start to speak slowly and deliberately. As I pour out my heart, Neil Young’s “Old Man” comes on over the din of the lunch hour crowd. Seriously, you couldn’t have scripted this moment better if you tried. We’ve had variants of this conversation before: “Yes, the divorce affected me. Yes, how I was subsequently raised affected me. Yes, I forgive you. Yes, I love you. Yes, I’m a lot like you.” He doesn’t speak much, but gives me his full attention as I voice my struggles, hopes, and fears. As I finish my thoughts, I’m not emotional; if anything, it feels good to get it off my chest once again. As he’s wont to do, he apologizes for not being the father that he wanted to be (or what I expected him to be.) His upbringing, rife with dysfunction and horror, makes mine look like a walk in the park. Yet, this time, the conversation ends on a positive rather than a negative note. I won’t go into too much detail, but the high notes are encouraging: So much of life is having the resiliency to get back up when knocked down, learn from your mistakes, continually be looking for ways to better youself. As the check comes and we head to the door, I couldn’t agree more.

I have roughly 15 minutes before my next meeting as we pull into the parking lot at my work. The buildings look aflame with the reflection of fall golds, oranges, and reds off their glass  exteriors. My dad pulls his car into a parking space marked for visitors and turns to look me in the eye. He tells me that regardless of what I’m going through and how I may currently feel about myself, that he is proud of me. That he loves me. That he’s never viewed me as inadequate or “less than.” I feel a lump quickly rise in my throat. He assures me that I’m doing a good job as a husband and a father. His eyes are beaming and full of pride. He closes by letting me know that he enjoyed our lunch and that he’s always there if I want to talk. Surprisingly, no tears are shed. I tell him that I’m thankful for what he shared and for his presence in my life. I’ve heard him say these things before, but they hit a little harder this time. I glance at my watch and let him know that I need to get back to me desk to prep for my meeting. He nods and says he has to get going as well. We exchange a hand clasp and a side hug. I pull open the passenger door, thank him for lunch, and lean down into the rolled down passanger window.

“I love you, Pops.”

“I love you too, son.”

With that, I turn and disappear into my building aflame in an autumnal glow.

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