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How To Make The Dad Connection: Lesson 1

September 8, 2010


A few weeks ago I wrote about the value of exploring your past to discover your purpose. Your father, no matter what role he played in your past, is a critical component of that discovery process. This is the first in a series of five lessons on Making the Dad Connection, learned from personal experience. Your thoughts and suggestions, gleaned from your personal experience, are welcome in the comments below.

On the Top Ten List of things you never want for Christmas, a midnight phone call is dead last. “Your dad is in critical condition,” Mom said. “The doctors have done all they can to stop the internal bleeding. They said I should call and ask you and your sisters to come home.”

After (maybe) two more hours of sleep and a five hour drive, I arrived at the hospital on December 26. A tiny, white-haired lady stood outside the doors of the intensive care unit. Mom had never looked so frail. Florescent light bounced sharply off the linoleum, exaggerating the pasty fatigue on her face. Her shoulders straightened as I approached. “I’m so glad you’re here.” We hugged.

Dad was semi-conscious when we walked into the ICU, an IV stuck in his arm and ventilator tubes protruding from his mouth and nose. The thought that we might never share another conversation took me back to when my son — our youngest child, the legacy of the family name — was born. I felt quite unqualified to father a son, based largely on the hell I had put my parents through as a teenager. Even so, I was tempted to blame my shortcomings on those of my father. Not that he had that many. But when you’re grasping for blame to cast on someone else, it isn’t hard to find.

Dad joined the Navy in 1945 at the age of 17, in what should have been the summer before his senior year. There may have been a noble motive, but if so he never shared it with me. Had he done something stupid, maybe even illegal, and given a choice to join the Navy or go to jail? I still don’t know. Had he shared the tale with me, I might have made it through my teens a little less fractured, and I might have felt a bit more qualified as a father. But the consequences of my choices were poking serious holes in my psyche, and any air of confidence I brought to fatherhood was rapidly escaping. Someone needed to patch the holes, and it was from the posture of a victim that I called Dad shortly after my son was born. I asked if we could meet for dinner. “Sure,” he said.

I had two hours of drive time to project the outcome of the conversation. I was in my late thirties, and the last 20 years had narrowed many of the relationship gaps between us. If Dad had wanted to share his past with me, he would already have done so. And the chance for it to make a difference in my life was probably long gone. Maybe he believed that hiding his past would be the best way to keep me from repeating it. If that were the case, maybe I should respect his decision. In the meantime, what do I really want to gain from the conversation I am about to have with my father?

It comes down this: I want to know my dad better. Why does he do what he does? Why does he say what he says? His influence is audible; his words are in my voice as I discipline and coach my kids. His dad, my grandfather, must have had a similar influence. Grandpa died when I was 11, so I never really knew him. All I remember is a grumpy old man. But I figure Dad will have stories to tell. It’s a safe topic to explore, and knowing more about Dad’s relationship with his father will likely deepen the relationship between Dad and me.

So when we sat down at the Village Inn, I asked my dad about his dad.

“Your grandpa was a very serious man,” Dad began. Grandpa was born in the 1890s, married Grandma around the end of World War I, and Dad’s older brother was born in 1919. Two girls followed, then Dad arrived in the October 1927. So with a family of six to house, clothe, and feed during the Great Depression, and who wouldn’t be overly serious?


At Grandpa's farm with my sisters, c. 1962


“He was one of the lucky ones who had a job all through the Depression. But there was always the uncertainty, the possibility that he could be the next one laid off. Then when I was in high school, as the economy started to turn around, he and Mom bought a little farm. They absolutely loved it, happiest I ever saw them. They should have done it years earlier.”

Dad never volunteered any information about his high school years, and he hasn’t to this day. But the door to his inner world opened up a bit, and he continues to share bits and pieces whenever we meet. Lesson 1 in Making The Dad Connection: be curious — and release your expectations.

Click here to read Lesson 2 in the series, Making the Dad Connection.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2010 10:20 pm

    My dad passed away after a 6-year battle with cancer. We were very close. Needless to say, I miss him very much.

    He always worked two jobs while I was growing up, but we did have a lot of family vacations, and more than that, when he retired he made it a point to be involved with my kids – something I valued since I never knew either of my grandfathers (they both died when my parents were young).

    He taught my kids to play cards. Every family gathering you would find him around the card table with his grandchildren. He taught my oldest son to play golf, which inspired in him the desire to become a professional golfer. He made a point to visit at least once every baseball season (spring and fall) to watch my now 16-year old play ball. My youngest son was born the year my dad was diagnosed with cancer, so was 6 when my dad died. He was very close to him however and didn’t quite understand why he was gone. A few months after my dad died he asked if we could go to heaven to “visit Grandpa.”

    He left quite a legacy.

    • September 10, 2010 10:52 am

      Wow, thanks so much for sharing your story, Ann. Fathers have such a powerful impact on our lives. What a blessing it is that your father could touch the lives of his grandchildren as well. And how cool that your youngest may indeed one day be reunited with his Grandpa in heaven.

  2. September 10, 2010 11:59 am

    As you know Richard, I’ve spent a lot of this year getting to better know my relationship with my father (who died in 2002). It is no exaggeration to say that knowing more about the man that shaped your life from the first breath on is one of the most important relationships to understand (the other being the mother). Thanks for this reminder that the journey never ends.

    • September 10, 2010 12:06 pm

      Good point, Steven; the Mom connection is worthy of a series all its own. Stay tuned!

  3. erichaynes permalink
    September 13, 2010 6:41 am

    My dad and I don’t really have much of a connection, and haven’t ever, really. He’s very closed about stuff from his own childhood and growing up, and definitely about his time spent in the Air Force. On those rare moments when I have been curious (and they are rare, sadly), it is like pulling teeth to get him to share anything. Sometimes I think I should try harder, and sometimes I think I’ve done all the trying, and it gets to be exhausting, so I quit trying. My greatest regret is that he is missing out on the lives of his grandchildren through his isolation.

    • September 13, 2010 1:20 pm

      Very sad for you, your dad, and your kids, Eric. I realize that sometimes a father-son relationship is just not in the cards, and the hand you’re dealt is not your fault. Hope you’ll keep reading. I’m going to post Lesson 2 today, and here’s a teaser from Lesson 5:

      …”when we see our earthly fathers from the perspective of the Heavenly Father, it makes it much easier to accept, forgive, and understand their shortcomings.”

      I know you know this. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. Dan Stein permalink
    September 14, 2010 9:04 am

    My dad told me once that I had fine sons. (But dad, was I ever a fine son? ) The closest thing to a compliment I remember is him opining that he must have done alright because none of his sons were drunks, in jail or divorced. Perhaps it is the lack in my relationship with my own father that drives me to know my own kids better and to hear and know their hearts.

    • September 14, 2010 9:16 am

      Dan, you hit the nail on the head. Whether the Dad Connection is good, bad, or nonexistent, we all have a choice as to how it impacts our life purpose. Glad you have chosen to let the lack of relationship with your father drive you to know the hearts of your children. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  1. How To Make The Dad Connection: Lesson 4 « Richard M Potter on Purpose

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