I didn’t see my dad cry until I was 19 years old. I don’t remember him smiling broadly until the day I got married. I still have never seen – or heard – him laughing carefree.
Did he do things perfectly in bringing up me and my brother? Of course not. Did he try his best and do as well as he could? Yes, and I believe that more than almost anything in the world.I am my dad’s namesake – Roger Olin Burks, Jr. – and share more than a passing resemblance. I have certainly taken both his strengths and weaknesses forward into life, but both are important in understanding who I am and what I mean to others.
What does my dad mean to me? Well, that becomes obvious when I sit down and try to consider it all; it’s way too much to write here. But here are several things that come to mind right away:
- Sharing his love for history through countless trips to places like Fort Osage, where we ate cold pork and beans from a can;
- Standing up for his beliefs by sticking with his union and not crossing picket lines during strikes, even though that meant pulling long hours finding back-breaking piecemeal work to keep putting food on the table;
- Going to the movies whenever we could, including all three original “Star Wars” movies (when I was 7, 10 and 13 years old), and sneaking hamburgers into the theater in our pants;
- Showing me how to Indian leg wrestle and beating me every single time;
- Allowing me to make a rock and shell museum in our garage, then letting me invite visitors from around the neighborhood; and
- Teaching me how to swim, how to ride a bike, how to fish, how to canoe, how to shoot a basketball, how to swing a bat and how to appreciate the scenery outside the car windows on our many family adventures.
And yet, even though I’ve spent thousands of hours with my dad, I don’t feel like I really know him. He’s quiet. There are hints of what’s deep within, like that first time I saw him cry: it was at my Grandpa Burks’s funeral. As I mentioned, I was 19, and my dad and I were both pallbearers. We’d just carried the coffin from the church, and I was there facing my dad, silent. I stepped forward and hugged him – the first time I really noticed we were now about the same size – and he sank his shoulders into me and cried. I did too.
It felt like more emotions than just the loss of his father coming out. Much more, like he was finally safe and able to share them with me. As if, before that point, he didn’t want to weigh me down with all that he was carrying.
Perhaps it’s a Midwestern trait, but I believe that a father shouldn’t burden his children with his own heavy emotions or expectations. There are hopes, sure, and wishes – but they are subtly communicated. A father imparts empathy for others through quiet strength. He guides in the way the wind does – invisible but sure.
A father is, in large part, most present in the things you don’t see. He’s the inner workings of a family, the technical and logistical “how” to the mother’s “why.” He keeps things neat, and not just the lawn. He fixes things, and not just what’s broken around the house.
And so the nature of a father is paradoxical, by turns heroic, frustrating and mysterious. But when he shows you a bit of what’s really there, what he works so hard to guard, it’s thrilling – like this:
When I turned 21 – the age he was when I was born in 1970, during a turbulent time – he wrote me a letter that concluded “I didn’t know what kind of world we were giving you, but I knew you were our miracle. You were my biggest joy.”
Sure, I could never imagine him saying that out loud – but I know he feels it.