Thursday, September 9, 2010

My Father's Hands

I don’t talk or write about my Dad much.

I think for a while, it hurt too much…or maybe there was some unfinished business there.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about him a lot.

Through my child-eyes back then, it appeared to me that he was always working. He was an insurance salesman, who did well financially. His ability to connect with folks was something, that many years after his death, people would mention when his name came up in conversation. He was a politician, consummate gentleman and community activist. He served on the City Council for several years and ran for mayor of Charlotte, in 1976.

But what I remember most about my father…were his hands. They were strong, weathered from years of hauling line through winch on his beloved sailboat…the telltale signs of sun and wind left age spots there that I thought were beautiful. I was always intrigued by his hands…their strength. I loved to hold his hand during church or feel them throw me high into the air and know that they would be waiting safely for my return as I fell back to earth.

And yet there was something strangely delicate about his gestures when he spoke. I distinctly remember the way his fingers would hold a cigarette…it was poised there between index and middle finger, his wrist slightly cocked. He would slowly bring the cigarette to his lips…inhale deeply and then exhale with lips closed…the smoke would exit slowly from his nostrils, swirl around him, with his eyes often squinting or closing until the smoke had lifted.

The memories I have of him, I could probably count on two hands. Like the time he made me eat all the squash on my plate. I hated squash. I was seven years old. Somewhere in my attic, rests a photo of me, sitting stubbornly at our dining room table with that plate of squash goo on my plate, my mom standing to my left with a martini and a cigarette and my sister standing behind me, smiling.

Or the time, I was in sixth grade and was sick with the measles. My mom was out of town and the rash first appeared across my little-girl chest and belly. My dad respectfully observed the rash where it was safe, in the space around my belly button…aware of my pre-teen angst around developing chest (or lack thereof).

When he sat on the floor of my bedroom and cried…sobbed really, his shoulders uncontrollably rising and falling with each inhale and exhale…sharing the news that he and my mom would be separating.

Or as he lay on his hospital bed…the night before his surgery. He was only 60 when the brain tumor brought him to his knees, both literally and figuratively. I was just 20. I held his hand and we said the Lord’s Prayer together that night…the night before they determined that he had little time left…maybe six months.

He lived another two years. Hank Wilmer was that kind of man…strong, determined and stubborn.

For some reason, I had a hard time loving my dad. He wasn’t around…when I was a little girl. My mom struggling, with her own demons, was completely unavailable to mother even herself, much less me. Unsure and poorly equipped, my dad simply disappeared. He emotionally and physically checked out. He lost himself in his work and his political life…he lost himself out there and I often questioned, as many kids do, whether I did something to push him away.

But now, I recognize that my father is fast becoming one of my greatest teachers. My anger or lack of understanding for him has gently slipped away in recent weeks. How liberating to see him as a man…a man simply doing his best to deal with life on life’s terms. I don’t know specifically what drove him away…but I do know that he, like me, you, my son and daughter share this experience we call human.

If I’m honest with you….really honest to the point of revealing something I’ve been a bit ashamed to admit but can do so now with tenderness and understanding of myself, the anger I’ve had for my dad has spilled over into other areas of my life: my work in the early years, my marriages, my personal relationships, my own need at times to escape or seek the love from others I felt lacking from my Dad and also from self…but thanks to Girls on the Run and my continuing journey out of my own Girl Box, I’m recognizing that the boxes we allow to confine us aren’t restricted only to women. Men have them too and as limited as I often allow myself to feel by the Girl Box, the shackles that restrain men are as powerful and scary as those that restrain us.

I only now am beginning to understand and gently accept his humanness…the pull he felt to be a man, a father, provide for his family and how scary it might have been watching your wife crumble and fall…feeling unequipped because you were…because men after all, at least in his generation were supposed to be strong, capable and sufficient.

I miss my Dad…he would have been so proud of me…but I get a do-over every time I see one of our girls cross the finish line with her father. I am deeply touched by a father’s love and can celebrate my own Dad again and again at Girls on the Run. I think in ways, I do not even yet understand, my father is becoming my greatest teacher. Teaching me to love in spite of what hurts…to love in spite of what feels missing…to love inspite of feeling unloved at love because he loved the only way he knew how…don’t we all?

Who has been a person in your life you have struggled to love? Is there a way to shift your understanding in such a way as to see him/her as a teacher perhaps? How does your humanness show up? Let me know at

1 comment:

  1. What a great post. thank you so much for sharing.

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