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My Dad's Legacy: A Work Ethic and Tenacity

Posted: 06/17/11 04:19 PM ET

If you could see yourself

What good is a mansion if your heart is starved inside

What good is a mirror if you only close your eyes

What good is a rainbow if you fear the pot of gold

All your life is wasted

If you only spend it growing old


If you could see yourself

The way I do

You'd see someone to look up to

You'd see someone

You'd be so proud of

If you could see yourself

Through my love

My father passed away in 1997. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1990, the same year my daughter Zoe, his first grandchild was born. They say that death ends the person, but not the relationship. Though I of course think of him on Father's Day, with every passing year, I continue to learn more about my Dad, by learning more about myself.

As a child, I did not see a lot of him. He owned a factory on King Street in Toronto that made slippers and sandals. He had the work ethic of an immigrant, and this, combined with the need to provide for his wife and six kids, kept him very busy.

Dad rose early and came home late, usually to sequester himself in the dining room for a quiet dinner with my mother. Often, he made the rounds at bedtime to say goodnight to his six children, but that meant taking sequential naps on each of our beds. A big man, over six feet tall with broad shoulders, he would take up most of the bed. When it was my turn for the night-time snuggle, I would hang on to my dresser to avoid falling off the sliver of bed left to me. I was pleased to have his company, but sometimes felt I was the one tucking him in.

Our shared nocturnal silence mirrored our daytime interactions. Innately, we had very little in common, except shyness. At home, I was outspoken, but in public, I was shy like my dad until about the age of 14. In fact, I was actually tongue-tied in school and at times, could feel my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth.

We also shared, at least during my childhood, shyness about showing affection. He didn't understand that his children hungered for his attention and affection and that we just never got enough. Now as an adult, I realize my dad suffered not only from shyness but low self-esteem as well. You can't accept love if you don't love yourself. In retrospect, I know on some level he felt unworthy of the love of his wife and children.

After my daughter Zoe was born, I experienced many unresolved emotions. One of them was a realization that I had never heard the words 'I love you' from my father's lips. I knew he did, of course. I had just never heard the words.

When she was about six weeks old, my Mom and Dad took Zoe and I out for dinner. I worked up enough courage, or maybe it was the hormones, to tell my dad I had never heard him say the words 'I love you.' His face turned bright red and his discomfort was obvious.

"Well, you know your Mother and I love you," he blustered.

"Not you and Mom," I countered. "Just you. I need to hear you say it."

It was extremely difficult for him to say 'I love you' out loud, but finally he stammered the three words I needed to hear him say. Even though I had forced the issue, I heard them, finally. That was the first and last time he spoke those words to me.

I know my dad didn't have much of a childhood, if he had one at all, considering his early job as family bookkeeper and translator. I have heard stories about his strict upbringing. I understand you can't give love and affection if you've never learned that language as a child. Providing material comfort was my Dad's way of saying I love you. I remember the first week after I moved into my own apartment when I was 18. I had come back home for Friday night dinner. As I was at the front door, leaving to catch the bus back downtown, my Dad said, "Wait." He went to the kitchen, and came back with a bag of apples. No -- "Bye honey, I love you -- take care " -- just silently handed me a bag of apples. I knew what he was trying to say, and I did appreciate his emotional mime.

As an adult, I know the dance I did to get his approval (without the applause) throughout my childhood is at the base of my drive to succeed as a performer. In her book, Daddy, Where Were You? Healing for the Father-Deprived Daughter, Heather Harpham Kopp talks about emotionally absent fathers, whose offspring have an unceasing need for approval and attention. For me, that's definitely part of the lure of the stage: lots of love, but from a distance -- the kind I'm accustomed to from my childhood.

In the 10 years I lived in the U.S., my father never once called me to see how I was, or wrote me a letter. In contrast, I used to write him regularly, long single-spaced letters with great detail about what I was up to. I knew the quantity, more than the quality of my letter would impress him.

I addressed them to him alone, not him and my Mom, and sent them to him at his factory, because I wanted him to feel that he was worthy of my attention.

I never got a response, but I kept on sending them.

My mom told me he would carry those letters around in his breast pocket for weeks, repeatedly asking her if she had read them. She told me how meaningful they were to him. He couldn't believe his daughter would take the time to write just to him.

That tells a big story about how low his self-esteem was. It also tells a story of the skills of persistence and patience I gained, in my lifelong pursuit for his attention. That tenacity, and ability to work with discipline and integrity helped me to stick it out in the music business, facing rejection after rejection. I was like the dog with the Frisbee. Even though each failure crushed me for a while, as soon as there was another Frisbee thrown at me in the park, I was off again! So I have learned to bless the pain, appreciate the strength it gave me. It's a particular skill set I owe to the relationship with my Dad. I thank him every day for it.

I wrote the song "If You Could See Yourself" for my dad but I never had the courage to play it for him. Finally, I sang it at his funeral for everyone else, who no doubt had the same mixed feelings about him, so they could hear and know it wasn't their fault they never got much from him in words. I know now that he couldn't say what he felt because he didn't feel entitled to his emotions.

The day after the funeral, my brother Norman complimented me on the beauty of the song and being able to voice that dynamic at the service.

Then he added "I'm just glad you aren't a professional tap dancer."

What good are your memories if you keep them locked inside

What good are emotions if you never learn to cry

What good are your loved ones if you push their love aside

I only want to hold you

But I feel my hands are tied


If you could see yourself

The way I do

You'd see someone -- You'd be so proud of

If you could see yourself

Through my love.


I don't know why you suffer

In the prison of your pride

I don't know what you think you'd lose

But I know what you'd find.


If you could see yourself

The way I do

You'd see someone to look up to

You'd see someone -- You'd be so proud of

If you could see yourself

Through my love.

(download "If You Could See Yourself" for free from www.amysky.bandcamp.com)

EMI Recording Artist Amy Sky is a singer-songwriter, author and mental health advocate. This blog is an excerpt from her upcoming book "Alive and Awake."

 

Follow Amy Sky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/amysky