My Dad’s Advice

I took my annual pilgrimage to visit my folks in Minnesota this summer.  My father is eighty, and we are not sure how long he has to live.  To the collective horror of his wife and children he repeatedly expresses his hope that his next stroke will be the big one.  He would much rather get life over with than become an invalid.  The rest of us prefer not to face such options for the time being.  To be supportive, though, we listen to him for as long as we can.

One afternoon I took a break from cleaning up his garage with him and walked around the old neighborhood.  Memories of my childhood lay in the rolling contours of the grassy lawns, the familiar rustling of elm leaves in the wind, and the old houses full now of new families.  Years ago, I would run inside these homes without knocking and ask if Tomy, or Jeff, or Char, or could come out and play.  Now I keep to the sidewalk so as not to arouse suspicion or appear to be snooping.

A sunny hillside, though, recognised me from thirty years ago.  It invited me to sit for a while and I was happy to oblige.  I leaned back on the grass, my hands cradling the back of my head, my elbows spreading out.  The same clouds I used to watch floated across the sky once more, making the blue of the sky beyond them look so deep in contrast.

It was on this same spot that I had once sat thinking about my life, with just thirteen years under my belt.  I remember having heard my dad call me in for dinner, and I fully intended to go, but I wanted to figure something out first.  One thought had then led to another without any resolution. Suddenly I was surprised to find that my father was sitting beside me.  He had found me lost in thought and suspected that something might be more important than dinner right then.

I remember taking my eyes off the clouds and looking up at him.

“Dad, what should I be when I grow up?”

I think we were both surprised by the question.  Even at thirteen I had already made it clear that my parents were not the authority on my life.  I was my own man.  So why was I suddenly so vulnerably seeking advice?  I must have felt very confused.

But what a golden opportunity for my dad!  It is rare that teenagers will even listen to their fathers’ advice, let alone ask for it.  All the wisdom of his years in the workforce could now be applied to help his son not repeat his mistakes.  Any unfulfilled dreams of his could now find a channel into this extension of his self.  “Law school” or “Medical school”, for example, might have been choicely placed words that could have guided me into a prosperous future.

He paused to gather himself and execute this moment to the greatest advantage.  Then finally he said, “I don’t know, Tim.”  And then after some thought he added,  “But whatever you do, let it be something you really enjoy.”

We stood up and walked back home.  I still had no idea what career to plan for, but somehow that didn’t matter so much any more.  I was free of whatever invisible weight had been pressing on me.  Life was going to be okay.

Thirty years later I was now sitting on the site of this profound advice. Grateful to the man who gave it, for all the joy it has brought me, and for sparing me all the pain that some other answer might have inflicted.  Thanks dad.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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