Joshua Heath | Notes on Dad, Individuality, Lessons of Love

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I watched my father a while back up at the church lectern delivering a eulogy for his father. The words were crisp and neat, no wasted phrases, a side effect of his 35-year career in business and vivid dislike of all things flowery.   

As he got to the end of the speech, he summarized all the great qualities my grandfather exuded — honesty, hard work, compassion, love for his wife and children — and then explained that in spite of it all, Pop-Pop never quite felt the applause in his life.  

In light of this, my father asked the audience if they would join him in a standing ovation for his dad. We all at once obliged and let out a few spontaneous tears.           

It was a really striking thing to say. Never quite felt the applause? But how could this be? What about all the countless Christmas and Thanksgiving gatherings I attended growing up, with my grandfather, our family patriarch, always one of the main focuses of attention? 

And so I reasoned that it wasn’t that the applause wasn’t there — it most certainly was — but rather my grandfather in his humility didn’t think to notice.  

Keeping up with your virtues, raising and providing for a family? These weren’t achievements worthy of a parade, but rather the meeting of a basic standard. 

Sometimes I think my father is infected with the same kind of thinking.  

For all the good things he described in my Pop-Pop, he embodies himself — the sense of decency and devotion, the profound love that expresses itself in fulfilling one’s duties, day in and day out. 

My father never demands any special treatment for this, and never throws all he does for his family in any of our faces when an argument arises.  

He just continues being who he is, always humble.  

This worries me as a son. It worries me because my father has had such a profound effect on my personal identity. So much of what I believe is worthy in life — empathy, love, idealism, fighting for the underdog — I can trace back to lessons he taught me, to the point where I consider my worldview a precious inheritance from him. 

Furthermore, my father always nurtured my nature, and encouraged me to explore the interests and paths I found fulfilling. 

The goal wasn’t to raise a son just like him, but to help me achieve the particular purpose I had in the world.  

It’s hard to understate what a gift that is, to know your only job as a child is to become the very best version of yourself. 

If I didn’t have my father, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.  

If I didn’t have a Dad who never refused me when I asked for a new book, and indeed always made sure I had something weighty to read (like “Pilgrim’s Progress” by the time I was 10), then I wouldn’t have the ability to write these paragraphs now.  

If I didn’t have a Dad who preached individuality like a psalm, then the usual taunts and insults one receives from schoolyard bullies growing up would have dug deeper inside me. Instead, they were very encouraging. 

Seeing the cruel, almost identical personalities of some of my peers told me that as long as I stayed my own man — as my father continuously urged — in the end the people I wanted to befriend would choose me over those who sold out their identities for the comfort of easy laughs. Any time I stuck to who I was, that was always the case.   

Now I suspect the arc of this piece — a tribute to dear old Pop — will seem decidedly outdated, like something from the year 1872, before Cobain and grunge, “Rebel Without a Cause,” and every other fad in the culture that told us to blame everything on Mom and Dad and only see them in the very worst light.  

However, one shouldn’t let trendy ways of thinking get in the way of giving credit where credit is due, to the good and decent men who make fatherhood not just a biological reality, but their vocation. 

I was lucky enough to be raised by a Dad like that, who knew how to love.  

That doesn’t imply perfection on his part. There are no perfect human beings, and there are no perfect fathers.  

But being his son taught me something about love. Even though I know my dad in a father-son context, I believe this lesson is applicable to all human relationships, and it is simply this. 

The greatest affection anyone can give to another — whether it be a husband to a wife, a brother to a brother, or a father to a son — is to be there for the person in the exact same way every day. Far too many people care for others only transactionally. They give as long as they get. Once the costs outweigh the benefits, the relationship changes.  

No matter what’s happened in my life, my brother’s lives, or my mother’s life, his love for us, and how he expresses that emotion, has never been affected.  

It’s a love that stems from the conviction that a human being, no matter what they go through or how they may temporarily change, will always deep down be the person they were on their very best day. To be a recipient of that kind of tenderness has been an unwavering source of strength for me. 

Whenever I’ve been faced with a dim corridor in life, that love was the warmth emitting from the floor, telling me it was OK to move forward. 

Happy belated Father’s Day, Dad — and to all the fine Papas out there.  

Joshua Heath is a Santa Clarita resident. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.

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