My father gave Den Talks. They were sometimes in the sunroom or on a porch where he could look out at the birds. They could be on a plane, or in an office. They could be in the car or in a hallway alcove in the Senate. I don’t know what they were called in all those other places, but we called them Den Talks.
They happened when report cards came. They happened when mom had it up to here with our behavior. They happened when a major decision needed to be made. One entered these talks a little sweaty or, in my case, a little teary. They were never harsh or angry, really. But you were going to have your rear-end handed back to you, and it was terrifying because leaving there, you had to step up your game. Nothing is more frightening than that.
I am the only girl, the baby, after four boys. We were raised full on by our fiery little mom who dealt with our day-to-day needs, hijinks, problems, and absolute good times. Dad would come home in the evenings, would be in his den or, later, when we took over his den, the sunroom all weekend. He was present, but more of a sideline guy. He spent his days running so much at work that he loved his back up role at home. At least that is my theory. And we were plain chaos, but in a good way. 5 kids, 4 of whom were born within 5 years. My mom would tell us that she was the boss and Dad the giant. He would come in and say, in a hard situation, “What did your mother ask you to do? Why in God’s name have you not done it yet?” All very calm and yet all very, very business; his voice so deep and full. We did what she asked in her name, his name, and God’s name. Whatever name it needed to be done in.
His Giant moments were rare that I can speak of. My brothers may have different stories. His advisory position started out 2-3 times a year. Usually when report cards came out. The report cards would come home, be opened by mom, left by the kitchen TV where she stacked all of Dad’s mail…..and we would wait. From the time we got home until 8pm when he came home. All of us kids lingering around the top of the stairs to be called.
I would walk in the Den with shallow breathing. I was not a star pupil. The minute we would sit down and he looked at me I would always burst into tears. He would lean forward quickly to whip out his handkerchief and start wiping my eyes, chuckling while saying, “Kitty Kat, I haven’t even said a word yet!” I would nod and nod and start to twist the hanky and hiccup. In the earlier years it would be along the lines of: Make sure you study more. Ask questions. Are you giving it your best?
As I got older the questions became deeper: What is it about Math that troubles you? Why aren’t you advocating for yourself? You need to separate out what you are being lazy about and what is making you struggle.
Nodding. Promises. Crying. Embarrassment.
Then I would look up and almost always he would have red-rimmed eyes by the end of the talk, emotional. “I want the best for you. You have to help yourself have that. I love you. Now was that so bad? Was I so terrible a giant?”
I’d always say no, but it was difficult. I never wanted to hear I had to work harder. I wanted an out, an excuse, anything that told me I didn’t need to give more of myself to something I hated so much. Those words would never come when it dealt with our work. We had to do our best. It always came with understanding, though. He always threw in a story about himself that I could relate to so I would know that he went through this struggle as well. And maybe it was just the other day. And maybe it was in childhood. Either way he knew just how I felt and I believed him. His eyes told me so.
As I matured, I understood all the phone calls he took in the den. It made sense to me why my brothers’ college-aged friends or older would ask to come over and speak with my dad. Volunteer for a Den Talk. There was so much wisdom he had to share. No matter whose path, he could envision it well and guide them on it, even if it had nothing to do with his areas of expertise. He knew what it took to present your strongest self to the world, and he would mentor anyone in how to do it. And it didn’t have to be a big talk. It was something as simple as a greeting in the kitchen, “Are you being a good boy?” while getting his cup of tea. It sounds like a throw-away line, but it wasn’t. People checked in with themselves.
3 years ago my father was diagnosed with dementia. Though I saw signs of it before the official word, hearing the diagnosis was a lead weight. All of his very essence was housed in his mind. His brilliance in a crisis, his thoughts in a hard moment, his words that were eloquent in any situation. It most certainly was the biggest slap in the face for a man like my father. It was trapping his advice. It was dampening his words. It was closing off the voice of reason I always needed. The words of comfort. The words of pride. It was just devastating to our family. I was suddenly adrift and could no longer see the lighthouse in the fog.
We would all still talk to Dad about what was going on. I would let him know when I had to make a hard decision and he would ask me about it. I would leave frustrated without any advice really given. I was mainly hearing “What do you think? Is one choice more clearly stronger than the other?” He was putting my questions back on me so I had to sit with them longer. It was a training. It was a weaning. After a little more time, there wasn’t much conversation left and I would sit next to him and lean on him which made him lean back on me. Physically comforting. Supporting.
My Dad passed away more quickly than expected, though he never was one much for lingering places. At his wake I saw grown men crying at the loss of him. I realized that they lost a man who helped bring them to power, through a crossroads, into a life with someone with whom they were meant to be. My family was surrounded by people who were changed by their knowing my father, thanking us for his time, and were so moved by his loss of presence in the world. It was a gift to know how much he had given, and, because he gave so much, the loss of him was so much greater.
Soon after he passed I had a decision to make; one that I certainly would have talked about with him. I had to go sit on my sun porch, instead, and rock in one of his rocking chairs. My head was clouding up in sorrow at wanting to hear his voice. As I let some tears fall and breathed through it, I realized that though his voice was missing, his words were present. I stared at the birds flying around outside and knew every question he would have asked me. As I thought of the answers I could see the direction he would have lead me in. His formula wasn’t top secret at all. It was just intelligent truths: show up, work hard, be good. The question he posed for me so many times that it is now one of my own go to reflection questions is, “Is it that you can’t do it or that you are afraid to do it?” His point being, if you can’t do it, then leave it to someone who can until you have gathered the skill. If you are frightened, well, life is frightening. It is hard. If it were easy, anyone would do it. It being hard is what makes it worthy of one’s attention and time.
I am saying these words to myself. I am saying these words to my children, to my friends. Though he is gone, he left with me his guidance and his wisdom. Every rock on my sun porch chair is a Den Talk. He is with me.