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The Best Father's Day Gift Ever (That I Never Gave My Dad)

An Iowa editor, born on a special day, offers some brutal honesty -- and a gift idea that won't cost sons a cent.

AND SO, Father's Day rolls around again, a day that has always held a special significance for me and for Tom Francis Richissin, my dad.

My father died when I was 31. He was a pretty good father. He coached his sons in baseball, football and basketball. He was a police officer, an honest one, a man of integrity. He put food on the table and kept enough order in a chaotic house that my four brothers and I were expected to be home to eat supper together, as a family.

He was, as they say, a good and decent man, and I loved him and I still do.

But here is some brutal honesty: For the longest time, I felt my father and I shared precious little with each other. I shared none of my fears with him, none of my soul. It may sound harsh, but my father and I were not friends. After Little League sports, we did not do much of anything together.

Our conversations resembled those found on airplanes when two strangers are forced to sit next to each other. They push themselves into the banality of pleasant small talk or they do not talk at all. Our conversations were sparse and uncomfortable, and for that the blame is mine. I have always worked much more diligently on my friendships than I ever did on my relationship with my father, and that is to my great regret.

I never told my father I loved him; that is to my great shame.

Nothing that can be done about that now, though, and I think such regrets are typical: Fathers and sons, the vast majority of them, love each other, clearly, but they do not do a very good job of showing it. Not until my father left me did I even try.

Some years ago, I embarked on a project, a book called "Fathers & Sons." It's filled with accounts from everyday fathers and sons and, for marketing purposes as much as anything, there are plenty of celebrities profiled. The book - here's more honesty - was an attempt to make some money. But it turned out to be more valuable to me than any royalty check. It put me face to face with the reality of my relationship with my father.

Here is a reality that I think explains why an honest accounting of fatherhood - and son-hood, for that matter - is so important. It is the one glimpse of my father's soul that he shared with me when I was, maybe, 12 years old.

My father called me into the kitchen and told me to put on a coat, that he and I were going to the store. We drove down the snowy streets of Brook Park, Ohio, in silence. Finally, as we crossed some railroad tracks a mile from our home, my father spoke. I know now that he had been building up his courage. We were going to the store so he could buy me darts, he told me. He was proud of me, he said, and he knew this was a clumsy way of showing it, but from the day I was born he loved me, and he thought I should know that. My brothers, he told me, had gotten old on him, and he knew I would, too. They had reached something called "that age," and they no longer kissed him hello and goodbye, and he missed that.

Like many men of his generation, my father was not a sentimental man. He had never said anything like that to me before and he never would again. I made no promise to him, never blurted out that of course I would always kiss him. But I never forgot what he told me, and I think he always remembered it, too. Through high school, into college, before I left to travel overseas and when I returned, I always made a point to kiss my father hello and to kiss my father goodbye. It meant the world to him, I know.

My father, 59 years old and strong as an ox, collapsed on March 1, 1995. I was living outside of Ohio, and I jumped on the first flight to see him. When I arrived at the hospital, he was hooked up to machines, alive only technically. My family waited a couple of days, and then we accepted what the doctors had told us, that my father would not be coming back. We decided to take him off the machines, to let him go in peace.

A stubborn fighter as always, he refused to go gently. He lingered for days. Then, with my mother, my brothers and me at his bedside, he finally let go. His last breath came like a long, sad, exhausted sigh. I will never forget it, ever. I wanted to say something then, but there was nothing to say, and so I just stood there, hugging my mother. Everybody was crying. Then a nurse called in a doctor, the doctor pronounced my father dead, and we were left alone with him. Somebody broke the silence by remarking how peaceful his face looked, and everybody agreed, yes, yes, his face sure looked peaceful all right.

I thought so too, I said, but in reality I saw only sadness in my father's face, and - I swear to you - I felt as though he had one last request.

My brothers and finally my mother went into the hallway, but I lingered behind, just a moment. At my father's bedside, I looked down at him. My tears fell like rain. I put my palms on the pillow on either side of my father's head. Trembling, I leaned toward him and tried to steady myself. Then I bent at the waist, put my lips to his forehead and, gently, I kissed my father goodbye.

It meant the world to him, I know.

That may seem like a sad story, and I suppose in some ways it is. But I like it. It is reality and it gives me solace. Let me tell you why: Not until I was well into writing my book did I allow myself to take an honest look at my relationship with my father. I think it was because I feared my relationship with him was not extraordinary, and I did not want to acknowledge that. In more than 30 interviews with groups of fathers and sons, and in discussing those relationships with my friends, that reality was forced on me. I thank God for that. It took me years, but finally I stopped to consider - really consider - the relationship I had with my father.

That is what led me to my father's talk to me as we drove for my darts, of the request that lingered in his hospital room and of that absolute need to kiss him on that snowy Midwestern March day that was so cold and so sunny and so beautiful and so very, very sad.

When I was honest with myself about that relationship, finally, I was altogether thrilled. I found that my relationship with my father was indeed extraordinary, as most relationships between fathers and sons are, despite the awkwardness that we as men and boys put ourselves through.

Here is what an honest account of my relationship with my father did for me: I now recall the times as a boy that I would stand on the couch behind my sitting father, combing his hair like Dagwood Bumstead, then mussing it up and changing it to an Elvis doo. That is fun when you are a boy. My father had an imitation of Benny Hill, and when he stuck his tongue over his upper lip and batted those eyes, I could double over in hysterics. I had all but forgotten about that, but now I remembered.

As a Little League baseball player who relied on a lack of height and small strike zone to get on base through walks, I can recall the time I squished my eyes closed, swung as hard as I could, and smacked a triple when my dad was coaching me. He was the only person on that American Legion field who was happier than I was.

When my father would see me after I drank too much liquor, he would say, "You know, if you'd just slit your throat you'd clear up them eyes." It was a stolen line, but he said it every time as if he was saying it for the first time, and it made me laugh, even when my head hurt.

Those memories made me realize that our relationship, in its very ordinariness, was indeed extraordinary.

We shared a lot. We were father and son.

I know what my father would do this coming weekend. He'd be too sheepish and embarrassed to say how he feels, so he'd grab a pen and scribble a note in my birthday card, the way he did so many times since I was born.

That was on Father's Day, 1963.

"You," he'd write, "are still the best Father's Day present I've ever received."

With as many mistakes as I've made in life, I'd never feel comfortable offering advice here. But, since it's about to be Father's Day and all, I'll share this, and I aim it at the sons: If my father were around today, if he were here to be funny and stern and wise and just an ordinary dad, I wouldn't just give him a kiss. I'd muss up his hair again. I'd laugh at his goofy imitations and his jokes about my hangovers. More than that, I'd talk with him.

And this time around I'd tell him that I love him.

Todd Richissin, Patch's regional editor for Iowa, adapted this from his book, "Fathers & Sons."

Megan VerHelst June 12, 2012 at 02:58 PM
Agreed. This made me cry a little, too.
Jeff Klinzman June 12, 2012 at 04:41 PM
Thanks so much, Todd. My dad and I have gotten much closer over the last few years. He's an old football coach, and I was thrilled when he told me, while discussing my (long ago) playing days, "You could hit!"
Alison Gowans June 12, 2012 at 05:32 PM
Thanks for sharing, Todd. Really touching.
Emily Caldwell June 12, 2012 at 05:34 PM
I love what he wrote in your birthday cards. And the mussing of his hair.
Ankeny Eyes June 12, 2012 at 06:02 PM
Well said.

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