25: A Father’s Wisdom

25: A Father’s Wisdom

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Wisdom of Dads

A FATHER’S WISDOM

My father died in Vietnam when I was five years old. The last thing I expected was to receive a letter from him seventeen years later. But that is what happened one winter day when I was twenty-two years old.

It was the day my fiancé and I announced our engagement. My mom was overjoyed at the news, as was my stepfather. Such an event is a milestone for the mother of an only son. As such, it occurred to her that I had “become a man.” That realization sparked in her the memory that years ago she had been given a solemn duty to discharge.

I remember being in the kitchen alone one evening. My mother walked in and handed me a letter copied onto mimeograph paper, the likes of which I had not seen since kindergarten. The seven pages were still folded, evidence of an envelope since discarded.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s something I should have given you years ago,” my mother said. “It’s a letter from your father. He wrote it to you from Vietnam soon after he arrived there, just in case something happened to him. You were little at the time, of course. He said that if he didn’t return from the war, I was to give it to you when you became a man. I forgot about it, to tell you the truth, although I thought I never would. When you and Claudia announced your engagement, it jogged my memory. It has been years since I had read or even thought about it. In reading it again, I realize that I should have given it to you a long time ago. I’m sorry.”

It is hard to describe how jolting her words were. You would think I would have been ecstatic! Instead, I was in shock. It was too overwhelming. The letter in my hand seemed like a mysterious package with the potential to explode, depending on what it said.

While these things were racing through my mind, my body was having a reaction of its own. My face paled. I went a bit numb. My hands turned cold and began to tremble slightly. I took the letter and went to my room. I was completely unable to say anything to my mother beyond a quiet, “Thank you.”

There’s just something confusing about receiving a letter from your deceased father who has been gone so long that you have not one solitary memory of him. What I knew about him I had learned by asking questions of my mother, my grandmother and my aunts. I had read newspaper clippings and looked through scrapbooks. I had made peace with the fact that these tidbits were as much as I would ever know about my dad. There was no reason to expect more... certainly no reason to expect a personal letter seventeen years after a landmine ended his life.

I sat there stunned in my room. Finally, after a few minutes, I managed to unfold the pages. They were handwritten. I felt privileged to see the handwriting I had not seen before. Some words were hard to decipher, but it was worth the effort to see the personality in the handwriting that a typewriter would not have shown.

After only a couple of lines, I refolded the letter. I wasn’t ready. My head had not the slightest idea how to absorb the letter. Part of me was afraid to read it, afraid that with one quarter of my life behind me, my life would not have pleased him... that I would not have his blessing. By that stage in my life, I had adjusted to not having to take into account my father’s approval or disapproval. Now, all of a sudden, I might have to.

At the same time, I felt humbled that I was even getting the chance to know my father’s thoughts. How many other boys, I wondered, would have this opportunity to read a letter from a father they never knew?

I set the pages on my desk and went back downstairs. My mom noticed my melancholy mood and asked, “Did you read the letter?”

“Not yet,” I replied, without offering an explanation. I wouldn’t have known how. I hardly understood it myself.

That brief exchange was enough to drive me back upstairs where I sat down and read the letter straight through. The words took on an almost sacred quality to me. This is part of what I read:

Dear Doug:

Your old man is writing this letter tonight because he feels the urge to share some basic thoughts with his only son. You are a very little boy at this writing, but the years will pass rapidly and someday soon you will be a young man facing the realities of life.

I fully expect to be around in the years to come and hope to assist you on your path through life; however, one never knows what the future will bring.

Someday, you will have to decide on a career. Many well-meaning people will offer their sincere advice and you will undoubtedly be quite confused. The choice of your life’s work is equally as important as choosing a life’s mate. Before you can do either, you must decide what you are yourself, as a person. As the years go by, you will soon discover whether you are outward or timid, adventuresome or docile, ambitious or complacent. It is no sin to be one or the other; but, it is extremely important that you discover what you are—not what at some moment in life you may think you would like to be.

After you decide what you are, think about what you would like to be within the personality and innate intelligence you possess—and then, unless you lack all ambition, pick a goal several steps higher than what you think you can achieve and work like the very devil to achieve it. Remember, son, the tallest and straightest trees grow in crowded forests where they must each individually reach for the very sun that enables them to grow into large and proud trees—in competition with the other trees. Scrub oaks only grow by themselves where they have no competition to spur them on.

Many people... exist in a dream world.... I have heard ministers and teachers condemn the war in Vietnam on many grounds they sincerely believe to be unquestionably valid. Their words of complaint have scant meaning when I watch people going to the Catholic church nearby on Sunday, and realize that until a few weeks ago, this was impossible because of Communist terrorism and military operations. I watch students, little boys like yourself, walk to school each morning under the protection of armed troops. I know that no schools or churches are allowed to operate in parts of this district I advise because they are under Communist control.

It was said centuries ago that for every man willing to lead, one thousand wait to be led. Your father is very proud of this army green he wears and would not trade his life as an Infantry Officer for any other endeavor, whatsoever. I hope someday you can say the same thing about what you have done for the first dozen years after achieving manhood.

Doug, you are a very intelligent boy and you have an extremely kind disposition. Should something happen to me, and I hope to still be serving in the world’s action spots when you are my present age, do not try to emulate a way of life that may not be suitable to your own particular makeup. I do hope you will choose a way of life that holds some potential for helping to make this a better world....

Regardless of what career you choose, I do challenge you to do your part in defending the rights you have inherited. Do not rationalize and try to say you are doing your part if your conscience tells you otherwise. One must develop self-respect before he can hope to attain it from others.

Ten years from now, let’s you and I sit down and discuss this far too wordy letter... and learn from each other, as I am sure that by then there will be much your old dad can learn from you.

Love,
Dad

When I finished reading the letter, it was as if the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I was not faced with trying to rebuild my life, after all. Instead, my dad had affirmed me, citing traits he had seen in me even when I was a little boy. His words were encouraging and motivating, not scolding or dogmatic. He did not lecture or warn me, but simply shared his thoughts. Instead of trying to persuade me to follow in his footsteps (which I had begun to do—even applying to West Point, only to withdraw my application), he held up virtues for which I could strive, no matter what career I chose. It felt good that, after all those years, I had some basis for thinking my dad would have been proud of me.

His letter had filled a place in my heart that I had only been partly aware of and had no idea was so large. I had received my father’s blessing. It had come after many years, even from beyond the grave, but it had finally come.

Until then, even though I had a wonderful stepfather, I had not fully appreciated the power of a father over his children. This man was a virtual stranger to me, even though I shared his genes. Yet, because he was my father, his attention and affirmation in a letter mailed a week before his death profoundly impacted the course of my life as an adult. He gave me permission to proceed in a direction I would have gone anyway, but now could go with greater confidence.

I believe that God can “re-parent” us, filling in the gaps left by imperfect or absent parents. The apostle Paul even said, “You received the Spirit of sonship and by him we cry, ‘Abba (Daddy), Father.’” (Romans 8:15) But I also believe that God does not usurp the place of a human father or mother. When God established parent-child relationships, He gave them a power all their own. They have an effect uniquely their own that even God can’t replace. I might not have believed that before, but I do now.

It is my wish that every father would realize the innate and powerful impact he has upon his kids’ lives... the potential he can endow toward self-esteem or self-hatred, toward confidence or insecurity. It is my wish that fathers would never miss a chance to plant seeds of encouragement in young hearts. I hope that as the influence of the father’s role is increasingly appreciated in our culture, it will become just as common to hear fathers say, “I love you,” or “Good job” as to hear those words from mothers. A lot of fathers want to say such things, but they don’t sound so familiar, or the timing doesn’t seem right, or there is some other reason....

Fathers, don’t let anything stop you from saying the things you want to say to your children. As my father said: “I fully expect to be around in the years to come and hope to assist you in your path through life; however, one never knows what the future will bring.”

~J. Douglas Burford
Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul

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