My father in a lot of ways was a hard man. I knew he loved us but it wasn’t something he talked about. Now don’t get me wrong, when I say he was a hard man I am not implying he was a mean man. On the contrary, except for getting mad at us sometimes for just doing those things that kids do, he never laid a hand on us. He didn’t have to, when he’d get angry, we mostly felt like we let him down so the guilt trip was punishment enough. He just wasn’t the type of father who showed a lot of affection.
After a huge going away party where practically everyone who lived in Piney Creek attended, my parents drove me to Tuscaloosa. The campus was huge and there were more kids running around outside than all the people who lived in my hometown. I studied hard and made it home when I could. Unfortunately, we barely had money for gas for my dad to come and pick me up during school breaks, let alone the $39 dollars it would take if I tried to take the bus. The only reason I got into the university in the first place was they offered fifty scholarships each year for underprivileged kids who had better than a 3.5 grade point average in high school. Being poor had to be good for something.
It was my senior year and Spring Break was right around the corner. My mom was begging me to come home. She said that my dad saved up the money and was looking forward to picking me up at school. I made up several excuses for not being able to make it home during the break, but the truth was, I received too good of an offer to travel down with friends to Cape Dunes on the Gulf of Mexico. I couldn’t tell my mom this as she would never have approved. Keep in mind, my mom’s world was about 30 miles around our farm and the community she grew up in. Any bit of travel was scary to her. I finally convinced her that I just couldn’t make it home this time but would look forward to seeing her at graduation.
While I was on the Gulf with my friends, one of them received a call from our dorm’s resident assistant (Brian), and he wanted to talk to me. He told me my sister called the dorm looking for me and said there was a family emergency. My heart was pounding when I called my sister to find out what happened. My mind was racing thinking about all the possibilities. Could my father have had a heart attack or did my little brother get injured somehow working on the farm? When my sister answered the phone, I knew by the sound of her voice that it was bad. She started crying hysterically so I couldn't make out what she was saying until she pulled herself together; by then my heart was dropping in my chest. She said that mom and dad were killed in an automobile accident while on their way to surprise me on campus.
They were killed by a truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel. One of the paramedics found an envelope on the floorboard of my dad’s pickup truck which had my name on it. I didn’t know about it until I made it back home to the funeral. My sister handed the envelope to me and it was from my father. I went outside on the porch unsure if I was ready to read what he had written. I opened the envelope, and this is what my father wrote:
I’m writing this note because as you know I’m not very good at sharing my feelings. Your mother always got on me about not expressing my love for you kids like I should have, but I guess I never got up the courage. I can’t explain why I’m the way that I am, but I guess it’s just one of the many things God will have a talk with me about some day.
I love you son and I am prouder of you than I could ever express in words. I’m not just proud of the man you’ve become or that you’re about to be the first person in our family to graduate from college, but I want you to know that I’ve always been proud of you. There were so many times when you were growing up that I would see you helping your brother and sisters with their chores or when I would see you staying up all night in the barn to make sure a sick animal wasn’t lonely. I wanted to hug you then and tell you how much I loved you but for some reason, I just couldn’t do it. Probably one of those bad things that are passed on from generation to generation, but the fact is I knew better.
Since I’m not good at demonstrating love like I should, I figured this letter can be a start. I love you son and I’m so proud of you. Your mom and I will try not to embarrass you at graduation!
Apparently, my dad was planning on handing the letter to me during their visit. While reading the letter I made my way off our front porch and out towards the barn because I didn’t want anyone to see me break down. I had no idea what his words would do to me. My father loved me. My father was proud of me. I wish more fathers realized how powerful those words are.
I always thought that I would graduate and end up in some big office job in Atlanta or Birmingham; instead I went back home to make sure the family farm stayed afloat. It’s still going strong and still churning out good kids. I have three children of my own and I haven’t forgotten those lessons learned as each night I hug and kiss them and tell them how special they are to me. My dad would be so proud!