We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. — Marianne Williamson
One day my dad called me out of nowhere and invited me to visit him in Mississippi. He said he wanted to talk to me and that it had to be in person. And he even offered to buy my ticket. I was in my twenties at the time. I was in the military and could have afforded my own ticket. He knew that. And yet, he was insistent that I let him buy it for me. In a couple days I was sitting with him in his living room with the television off, waiting to here what he had to say.
It was a big deal that my dad had his television off. That was not like him. He always had either boxing, soccer, or the news on. Those were his staples. So I knew that something serious was up. I thought he was going to tell me that he was dying. But that conversation was still a decade away. This conversation was about his relationship to me. He wanted to apologize for the life I had and what he felt his role or lack of role was in it.
“Puca, I don’t understand you. But I want you to know that I respect you. I mean Pedro, I don’t understand you. But I want you to know that I respect you.” Puca was a nickname that my family on my father’s side calls me. It’s pronounce like Puke-uh. Like vomit. Anyway, that’s what people in my father’s house tended to call me. Either that or Peter. I was given the latter nickname after my father grew tired of me answering to Pedro whenever someone was talking to him. Although he named me after him, his divorce from my mother when I was two years old ensured that he never really had to grow accustomed to the sounds of his name being used by another person. So the name that I used every day of my life back in VA was replaced whenever I was in the South. But on this day for reasons I was about to find out, in my father’s eyes, I had become Pedro again.
I really didn’t know how to respond to this confirmation that I had earned his respect. So I said the only thing that I could think of, “Thanks.” I had long given up on the thought that my dad—or anyone for that matter—would understand me. I did not live for that. In fact, I hadn’t really cared about having anyone’s respect either. I was just doing my best to live, what I refer to as, Christward. I think the word is self explanatory. So I’ll just leave it as saying that I had no goals or desires in life besides being able to say to myself, when that day comes and this body is laid aside, that I did my best to follow Christ as I understood what that meant. What people made of me was theirs to deal with—even my parents and other family and friends. But I could tell that it meant something to my dad to tell me that he respected me. So I accepted it. He then went on to tell me why.
“I always thought you were the weakest of my children. But now I am starting to think you might be the strongest.”
That was not news to me. For years I knew he thought that about me. Probably most of my life. In my late teens, right before I went into the military, I had moved in with him for a little while. One day he decided to give me some advice by saying to me, “Puca, you are what people call ‘a good man’…” At this time I still had a little hope that he “got me” so I was ready to appreciate what he was saying to me. That is until he finished his sentence by saying, “…which is another way of saying, a fool. Stop being a fool.”
There was a lot behind why he was saying this to me that I am not going to get into. But let’s just say, I could understand why he thought this. But what he didn’t yet understand about me was that I was living according to different standards than he was. And when I say different, I don’t mean better. I mean what I said. Different standards. My dad and I were largely looking for different things in life, which meant a different focus. His confusion about me came from his thought that as his son, with his name, I should naturally be more like him. In some ways, I was. But my expression was clearly different.
My dad thought A LOT! His brain never turned off. And in that way, he and I were similar. Where we were very different was that I decided that I could choose what I thought about, whereas, my father was generally hijacked by his thoughts , constantly trying to make sense out of the past and worrying about things in the future that were beyond his control. I was like that for a season also. But by God’s grace, I eventually realized the fruitlessness of this.
It turned out that it was this way of being that eventually gained my dad’s respect. Like some of the kids in my high school realized after years of trying to apply peer pressure, my dad eventually came to the conclusion that I was stuck the way that he experienced me and he grew tired of trying to change me. I outlasted him. And to him, that meant that I won in his mind games and so I deserved respect. Clearly I was stronger than he thought and he needed to let me know that. Still, I figured that was something he could’ve told me over the phone. But I guess he needed to see my face.
He went on to tell me that for years he thought I was gay. I knew that too. He thought being raised by my mother made me soft. He thought that was his fault for leaving. He thought that I lacked ambition because I never did anything for money and had the brains to be more than “just an enlisted man”. He told me some of the things that he would do with his life if he were my age and had my intelligence. I said, “If you can imagine the intelligence you think I have, then it is in you too. So you should do with it what you think I should be doing.” He laughed because he finally accepted that this was exactly the type of answer I would give to a statement like that. He didn’t understand it. But he respected it.
We continued talking for some time until my dad finally asked me how I thought that I turned out the way that I did.
“It’s like you were born with this great hand of cards. And you were playing well. Then someone came up and snatched your great cards right out of your hands and then gave you their shitty cards. But rather than get upset that they did this to you, you just kept playing like nothing ever happened.
Most people would get upset or they would stop playing. But you just keep working with these shitty cards. And then when you start winning again, they do the same thing to you. And then you just keep playing. You look like a fool. But because you just keep playing, the people who gave you the shitty hand start looking like they’re the fools. How did you get like that? Why aren’t you angry about it? Why do you keep playing with these shitty people and shitty cards you don’t deserve. I don’t get it.”
I basically responded to him with what I got out of John 15 when Jesus told his disciples to not be surprised if people hated them because they hated him first for basically no reason. If Jesus didn’t get out of his cross, I couldn’t see how I could expect that I was going to get out of mine. So I basically just dealt with it. I knew I couldn’t control people or how they treated me. All I could do was work on myself and control my response. I didn’t want to be the type of person that made others feel the way some of the people in my life tried to make me feel. It was a lesson in “Doing unto others as I would have them do unto me.” Besides, I added, “It’s not outside the realm of possibility that I was some kind of jerk in another life or something and this life is some kind of balancing of the scales.” My dad laughed at that. And in that moment, I think we became friends and respected each other.
I always loved my dad. But he knew, because I told him, that my feelings were that when he moved away and didn’t take me with him, he lost most say in the person I turned out to be. I had to learn to survive in a world without him there. I was shaped by that experience to some degree. And whoever I was becoming, whether it met his standards or not, was someone who I had to decide to be for myself.
Often in life, we let authority figures of one kind or the other define us or tell us who we can or cannot be. It can be a person or a society, someone as close as our parents or someone as distant as a marketing exec who uses certain messages to tell us that we are not good enough. But at the end of the day, we each are children of God. And that is the only identity that endures.
1 John 4:17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.