A few weeks into this project, Javi the Hippie and I run into my parents on the way to a pint-sized collaboration session. I’m not sure how to navigate the two worlds colliding – both of them having a view of one another based entirely upon my own interpretation.
“They seem really nice,” he tells me, “but it seems as if you’re on slightly different frequencies.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like a similar station, but they’re AM and you’re FM. Just different waves, that’s all. Similar message, but a very different delivery.”
It’s a rare moment when real-life matches Facebook (I keep using the term “real-life” as if Facebook is a realm inhabited by unicorns, gnomes and other fantasy creatures). On Facebook, my mom is my friend. So are my old college classmates, childhood friends, former students and distant relatives. I approach conversations unsure of which world will enter this vaguely undefined space.
It was strange for me the first time that my mom appeared as a friend. Not that she’s unfriendly. It’s just that I hadn’t seen her as anything other than my mom. I had to rethink this concept of friendship for a moment and reconsider how our relationship had changed. The conversations had become deeper. I was hiding less. And somehow, when she would stop by and we’d talk, I knew that she saw me as a grown-up and we shifted toward being equals.
So I call my dad up and ask for help with the sprinklers. Within minutes, I admit that I don’t know what I’m doing. Instead of shame, I experience a vague sense of relief. Instead of talking down to me, he talks as if we’re equals. We’re working on a complicated project and I haven’t reverted back to an insecure twelve year old trying to prove something to someone who never once asked me to prove anything to him.
I think I sometimes missed that when I was younger. I saw my dad as respected and competent and yet somehow rugged. I didn’t see how someone who was so externally rough could be so internally gentle. But he is. In a very masculine way, he’s one of the most tender-hearted guys I know.
We share collective disappointment in leaky valves and collective joy when the sprinklers finally work. We’re both impatient at moments, but we give one another the permission to be impatient. I ask too many questions. He gives directions with too many steps. We’re imperfect together and for the first time I see that this is as good as it gets with my father – to be together, truly present, working toward a goal together.
I’m never truly comfortable with the work. I never feel entirely at ease with dirt under my fingernails or long periods of conversational silence or the recognition that I am a bad student and a slow learner in something so vital to my family.
My hands still feel clumsy, but the relationship isn’t. It doesn’t have that ethos of an awkward man hug.
As we drive toward Home Depot, he shares a part of him that I’ve never seen before. No tears or anything. Just a few honest thoughts about life. He talks about aging and health and his future. For a moment, I forget that he’s my dad.
On the drive home, we venture into politics. It’s a verbal spar that got me into trouble at a younger age. However, this time it’s different. It’s humble. The give and take is intense, but it includes common ground and nuance and paradox. We both ask more questions this time. More importantly, we give one another the permission to disagree.
As we enter my home, I’m struck by the fact that I like my dad. I’ve always loved him, but I’ve wondered if we’d be friends if we met as strangers in a workplace. Right now, though, I’m thinking we’d become friends. Maybe he’d even become my mentor. I’d come home and tell Christy, “I met this cool old guy at work. He’s smart, but he’s practical and even though we see the world differently, there’s this strange sense in which we are so much alike.”
Quinn the Business Bohemian once defined a friend as someone who looks out for your best interest whether it feels good or not. At the time, I blocked parents from the definition, but now I’m realizing that they fit this as well as anyone else. So without an automated message, I managed to friend my father.
That evening when my kids are asleep, I flip on my Pandora station. I listen to The Format’s “On Your Porch” and then I shut off the station, find the song on my iTunes and play it on repeat. Tears stream down as I recall the memories of my childhood: playing on the boulders at Shaver Lake, late evening games of catch when he was wiped out from work, playing the “Snafu” on the Intellevision, funny stories and footsie pajamas, icy cold games at Candlestick Park and the sense that my dad was so clearly present and loving and strong.
And he still is.