Ken Takes a Walk in his Dad’s Shoes for Father’s Day

I left home at age 17 and was estranged from my dad for more than 20 years of my adult life. The past hasn’t changed, but our relationship is different now if only because I understand better. Take a walk with me.

When we come into this world, we have no memories or emotional scars. We are a blank slate of experience—and then, life happens. For most, our primal needs for food, shelter, and most importantly, love, are met first by our parents and siblings. Most of us are fortunate. Despite life’s bumps and bruises, we emerge from our childhoods with hope and a sense of security that comes from knowing that if you stumble, your family will be there to catch you.

This wasn’t my dad’s childhood. He didn’t emerge; he escaped.

To measure my dad’s accomplishments in life, one has to first understand the challenges that he overcame and those that he struggles to overcome to this day. In the most vulnerable and impressionable years of his life, instead of experiencing the safety of a loving family, he survived emotional abuse, physical abuse, rejection, and ultimately abandonment. Understandably, his survival came at a high cost. Survival often does. My dad may deny the cost, of course. Tough guys often do. But his denial wouldn’t be an avoidance mechanism. He is a realist. His denial would be because there was nothing that he could do about it.

The first casualty was his childhood innocence. With the sacred trust of family shattered, he moved from one broken home to another and he was forced to deal with the rawness of life and emotions beyond his tender years. More importantly perhaps, he learned early that life can be cruel and unfair and comes with no guarantees, not even parents to love and protect him. In retrospect, he would likely say these lessons proved to be invaluable. They made him into a self-sufficient man determined to make his mark in life and firm in his vision of right and wrong. As his son, however, I can attest that the lessons had a downside, too. His emotional scars from being discarded by those he loved were so great that, in many ways, the void of love came to define important relationships in his life in later years. This may always be his unfinished opus in life—a perpetual work in progress.

The loss of his childhood was not the only casualty. He lost his childhood dreams. Many who know him today may be surprised to learn that my dad was a talented multi-sport athlete in his youth. To watch him move with a football, a basketball, or even with a ping pong paddle in his hand, his physical gifts were obvious. He moved with an athlete’s grace, quickness and strength. He had every reason to dream, and yet without the support of his family, he never had an opportunity to pursue those dreams. Instead, my dad played through life’s early injuries as best that he could. He had no choice if he was to survive.

For my part, I am reminded that my dad’s life quickly changed after he left home at age 17. Within a few short years, he met my mom, graduated from high school, entered the U.S. Coast Guard, married, and had two sons to support. The pressure must have been immense. Did he shirk his responsibilities? No, he fought through childhood demons and provided for his family as best that he knew how. No one had a right to ask any more from him. No one has a right to expect any more from him. If ever there was anyone who picked themselves up by their own bootstraps, it was my dad. And despite their later divorce, my mom’s respect for him and friendship with him has never wavered. That speaks volumes.

But what of his family and his career in education? Ask him and he would no doubt say that his proudest and best work in life are his children. I disagree. The quintessential measure of my dad—his Mr. Holland’s Opus that inspired everyone his life touched—was his determination to live life on his own terms, ethically and honestly with humor and above all, defiantly. Leading by example regardless of the consequences, his courage became my courage. His backbone became my backbone.

This is my dad’s ultimate legacy, perhaps the ultimate measure of a man’s life. He didn’t always give me what I wanted, but he gave me all that I needed for a lifetime. The past is the past. Life is hard; being a parent is harder. Without him, I would not have had a richly rewarding and blessed life. But I have, and for that I am forever grateful.

I encourage all of our readers to take a similar walk with your fathers on this Father’s Day—today, not tomorrow, because nothing is certain. Tomorrow may never come.

Happy Father’s Day, Pa. You will always live on through me.

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"This is my dad's ultimate legacy, perhaps the ultimate measure of a man's life. He didn't always give me what I wanted, but he gave me all that I needed for a lifetime. "