I LOVE YOU, DAD
By Jeff Phair
My Dad died in 2010 at the age of 88. David Phair was born on December 7, 1921. He moved to San Diego as a young boy and attended Hoover High School and San Diego State College. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on his 20th birthday, and he promptly enlisted in the Navy and completed officers’ training school.
He fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II. When I was a boy, I tried to get Dad to tell me about the War—a young boy’s morbid curiosity. Dad would never talk about it. He was a very stoic and unemotional person. After years of pestering him, he finally gave in and said, “Jeff, I will talk about the War this one time, but never ask me again.”
He told me that he piloted small landing craft ferrying soldiers from the huge troop ships to the shores of the islands being attacked. He’d drop off 100 men on the beach and by the time he came back with another load of soldiers, the bodies of half the men he had dropped off 15 minutes earlier were floating out to sea.
Dad’s very short description of what he did in the War was non-emotional. He never spoke of the War again. His way of dealing with the atrocities of war was to suppress it in his memory. In society today, we now understand what PTSD is. It permanently scarred my Dad all those years ago.
I now realize the same emotional detachment of my Dad was also true of my friends who came back from Vietnam; the lucky ones who did come back.
I grew up as the only son, with three sisters. Dad was always warm and demonstrative of his affection for his daughters, but not with me. He was very hard on me. I got good grades, but he was disappointed that I wasn’t class valedictorian. I’d run for 200 yards and score four touchdowns in a game and he would ask me why I didn’t score 5 touchdowns. I grew up wondering if Dad loved me, because he never said it to me. Whatever my accomplishments were didn’t seem to be good enough.
My Dad had me work every summer as a teenager. I worked as a laborer building small rental homes on my family’s ranch in Bonita near San Diego. I dug the footings-foundations by hand because it was cheaper to pay me $1.15 an hour than rent a gas powered ditch witch. I mixed concrete in a wheelbarrow and poured small sections of the footings at a time because it was cheaper than bringing in a concrete truck with a boom pump. I realize now that Dad wasn’t just being frugal. He was teaching me the value of hard work, and that going to college was a much better alternative.
[NOTE: My wife and I were volunteer high school cross country and track coaches for many years. I gave summer construction jobs to hundreds of young men I coached. After a summer of digging ditches and hauling bricks, 98% of them decided to go to college. I passed on the lesson that Dad had taught me.]
I spent my sophomore year in college studying in Mexico City. When I came back, I had a beard and shoulder-length hair. Dad looked at me and said that I had probably spent the year in Mexico as a drug dealer. He kicked me out of the house and cut me off financially.
Dad had built a successful chain of men’s clothing stores in San Diego. He was a 3-piece suit, button down collar, and wingtip man. He was embarrassed that I looked like a “hippie” and wasn’t his clone. I converted my grandmother’s garage into a studio apartment. I spent the next seven years working in the restaurant business as a bus boy, waiter, and cook to put myself through college, an MBA program, and law school. Maybe it was Dad’s plan to toughen me up through facing adversity. But I don’t know, because we rarely talked for 10 years.
When I married my wonderful wife, Julie, 37 years ago, she told me that I had to be the first one to reach out to Dad to re-establish a relationship. She told me to write Dad a letter and talk about fun things we did together when I was a boy. Most importantly, Julie told me that I had to sign the letter, “Love, Jeff.” Dad never acknowledged my first letter. So Julie encouraged me to keep writing.
Several times a year, I would write to him and reminisce about a camping trip we went on with Indian Guides when I was 7-8 years old. Or, I would share stories about fun things I was doing with Julie and our three sons. For over 30 years, I wrote him what Julie referred to as “Dad/Son love letters.” He never acknowledged any of my letters. When I would see him, I always ended our visit by saying, “I love you, Dad.” He would never say that to me in return. I now realize that it wasn’t me—his generation of men didn’t say “I love you” to another man, not even their sons.
As our three sons were growing up, several times a year I would write and mail them letters recounting fun things we had done as a family. But the real purpose of my letters was to tell my sons that I loved them. I did not want my sons to grow up, as I did, wondering if their Dad loved them.
When the boys were too young to read, Julie would take them to the mailbox to pick up my letters to each of them. They would get excited there was a letter addressed to them. Julie would read aloud my letter to each of them. She would then put the letters in a Memory Box (a small wooden box) on top of the desk in each boy’s bedroom.
All of my sons, now in their 30s, lived at home until they got married in their mid to late 20s. I wrote my “love letters” to my sons several times a year for over 25 years. When each son got married, Julie gave each Memory Box to their wives so that they could know more about their husbands growing up. More importantly, my letters to my sons, shared with their wives, reinforced the importance of when they have children, that they tell their children that they love them.
Love should be expressed with heartfelt words, not assumed by giving a child a new bike for Christmas or a video game on their birthday. All three of my sons live in San Diego within 20 minutes of Julie and me in Bonita. We have Sunday dinners together almost every week. They never leave our home without my telling them I love them, and them saying, “I love you, Dad.”
I was visiting my Dad the day he had a massive heart attack and stroke at age 88. I got him to the hospital right away. In the emergency room, the doctors told me there was nothing they could do. He had only a few hours to live. I sat by his bed holding his hand. He was still conscious, but could not talk. I remembered all the letters I had written him over the years. I started re-tell him some of the fun things we had done together:
• A trip to Disneyland
• Having our tent collapse at night while camping in the mountains
• Hiking together in Yosemite (God’s greatest creation)
For two hours I talked and he listened with a smile on his face. Just before he passed, I held him in my arms and hugged him. I told him that I loved him. I had waited 59 years to hear him say the same to me. But he was unable to do so because of the stroke. His response was to smile, and nod his head in agreement . . . and then a few minutes later he was gone.
Several months later, I cleaned out his office in nearby Chula Vista. It was the same office he had gone to for sixty years. Dad was born during the Great Depression and was a very frugal Scotsman. He saved every thing that ever came into his office:
• 1,000s of postmarked stamps
• 1,000s of old rubber bands
• Newspaper ads about sales at his clothing stores from 60 years earlier
Dad wasn’t a hoarder. He had everything neatly organized in boxes. One drawer in his desk was locked. I could not find a key, so I pried it open. To my surprise, there was my Dad’s own Memory Box. It was an old cigar box. Inside the box there were my 100+ letters that I had sent Dad over the previous 30 years. On each letter he had written a short notation:
• “Yes, I remember that camping trip”
• “Yosemite was beautiful”
• “Our trip to Disneyland was fun”
• “Your sons are handsome like their Grandpa (HA HA)”
All of the letters I had sent him, each with his personal notation, were neatly stacked in chronological order. The very last letter I sent to Dad was just a few weeks before he passed away. At the bottom of the letter right below where I had written, “I love you Dad,” he had written. . . “I love you too, son.”
I broke down and cried like a baby.