On this Father’s Day if you can’t give your dad a hug, write him a letter. I did. Don’t do it over email, but write an actual physical letter. Write it by hand, find an envelope, lick the back of it and put a stamp on it. It’s a lost art, but do it for dad and do it for yourself.
My father and grandfather spent 29 years writing letters to each other. They hashed out their grievances, discovered discrepancies in how they viewed the same events, and surfaced new interpersonal struggles.
When my dad asked me to write him a letter I didn’t want to. I was busy, didn’t like the pressure and wasn’t sure what to say. The real issue is that in these modern times, I hadn’t actually written a proper letter in a long time. The return to analogue communications opened up a rawness, candor, and honesty that felt liberating.
So on this Father’s Day I’m sharing the letter I wrote to my dad and suggesting you take a pen and paper and do the same. It is a meaningful way to connect in this difficult COVID-19 era:
It’s a funny thing to realize you are just like your dad. For me, it’s been a journey to get there. For years I was in denial about it. He fixates on things, takes on a project and makes it the theme of every conversation, insists on making his various collections a living museum for all to see, and is master of the tangent for his latest stream of consciousness thinking. That couldn’t possibly describe me.
The more I saw his reflection in the mirror, the more I projected, which meant creating distance between us. I wouldn’t call, I’d get frustrated when he didn’t understand something I was talking about, and when he would ask if I received his messages, I would get annoyed and explain that nobody uses voicemail anymore. In truth, this was part of my own identity crisis.
But all of that changed when I had kids. A few sleepless nights, some exploding diapers, and the sheer responsibility that comes with raising a child made me quickly realize that being a dad is hard. It’s also humbling to think that as a parent, I haven’t even caught up to my own memories yet. I have photos, but my recollections begin in elementary school. I expected my dad to be present for all my baseball, tennis, and soccer games. Even though I was a terrible saxophone player and never really learned to read music, I would have been devastated if he missed me march in the Memorial Day Parade. I believed I was the center of the universe, so thought nothing of it when he was in a bad mood, stressed out, or wanted me to stay at the dinner table long enough to have a family dinner. I remember all of this.
I’m now getting a taste of my own medicine. My three girls drag bedtime out, leave their clothes all over the place, at times mark up the walls of my newly renovated apartment, and it seems that on days when I really need them to lighten my mood, they decide to snub me. But I am also experiencing the power of a single smile, a cute gesture, a moment of comfort, all of which evoke a string of emotions that I didn’t know existed.
I never got this as a kid. But I’m getting it now and, in many respects, I feel that I am reliving my own childhood through my dad’s eyes. It’s one of the most powerful experiences that I’ve ever had. When he comes over to play with my daughters, it is as if I’m watching chapters of my life that I don’t remember. He makes the same jokes, plays the same games, and has the same endearing qualities with them that he must have had with me when I was a toddler.
These are powerful emotions, but they also fill me with guilt. I find myself wondering what life challenges, hardships, and stresses he was forced to endure and hide while I threw a temper tantrum about someone leaving me out at recess or because I didn’t get a toy I wanted. Were there moments he felt his life was falling apart? Did he ever cry in the other room to avoid exposing me to his emotions? Were there moments when he wanted to be completely present but something happened to get in the way?
If he ever felt these things — and he must have — he never showed his hand, instead choosing to parent in the most selfless way possible. I sometimes feel tempted to ask him to take me back to these moments, but truth be told, I don’t think I could handle hearing it.
I’m late to the game, but find that at this stage of life I’m trying to draw as many comparisons to my dad as possible. Now that I want it, it seems harder to live up to his example and that irony is not lost on me. He worked out of the house, never traveled for work, and didn’t have the kind of job that required him to be out for dinners all the time. We played baseball against the garage, once raced to New York City from Connecticut so that I could meet Mickey Mantle, chased my favorite basketball stars around Madison Square Garden, made snowmen together, and played endless sets of tennis.
I struggle to reconcile my life with the impossible standard that he has set. It’s strange for me to write all of this. My dad loves to reflect on and relive the past. I don’t mind doing this when the experiences are positive. I suspect I would not enjoy or feel comfortable having this conversation verbally and it takes the publication of his book for me to find the will to write it down. As I write this, I wonder if it will be followed by probing questions and a desire to go deeper. But that is not what I want.
My dad is a constant reminder of what matters in life. I often get distracted by superficial metrics for success and it is when I am around him that I realize the true metric is the investment we make in our children. I suspect parenting will get both more fun and harder at the same time. The vast majority of my life will be as a parent and I believe the greatest gift he ever gave me was an ambitious playbook for how to live that experience to its fullest.
It’s a wonderful feeling to have three of my own children and to have them ask me about my hero. I tell them with pride that it is my dad. I suspect they will go on their own journeys in our relationship, but I hope they arrive at the same destination. Today they like to joke and say, “Daddy’s myyyyyy heeeeero.” The lesson I learned from my dad is that it is up to me to earn that status. Fortunately, he showed me the way, which I suppose is my understanding of the “Inside Ride.”
Jared Cohen is a New York Times best-selling author of five books. This letter is the foreword to his father, Donald Cohen’s, new book The Inside Ride: A Journey to Manhood.