After Mom died, I began visiting Dad every morning before I went to work. He was frail and moved slowly, but he always had a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice on the kitchen table for me, along with an unsigned note reading, "Drink your juice".
Such a gesture, I knew, was as far as Dad had ever been able to go in expressing his love. In fact, I remember, as a kid I had questioned Mom "Why doesn't Dad love me!" Mom frowned. "Who said he doesn't love you!""Well, he never tells me," I complained. "He never tells me either," she said, smiling. "But look how hard he works to take care of us, to buy us food and clothes, and to pay for this house. That's how your father tells us he loves us." Then Mom held me by the shoulders and asked, "Do you understand!"
I nodded slowly. I understood in my head, but not in my heart. I still wanted my father to put his arms around me and tell me he loved me. Dad owned and operated a small scrap. Metall business, and after school I often hung around while he worked. I always hoped he'd ask me to help and then praise me for what I did. He never asked. His tasks were too dangerous for a young boy to attempt, and Mom was already worried enough that he'd hurt himself. Dad hand fed scrap steel into a device that chopped it as cleanly as a butcher chops a rack of ribs. The machine looked like a giant pair of scissors, with blades thicker than my father's body. If he didn't feed those terrifying blades just right, he risked serious injury.
"Why don't you hire someone to do that for you!" Mom asked Dad one night as she bent over him and rubbed his aching shoulders with a strong smelling liniment. "Why don't you hire a cook!" Dad asked, giving her one of his rare smiles. Mom straig htened and put her hands on her hips. "What's the matter, Ike! Don't you like my cooking!""Sure I like your cooking But if I could afford a helper, then you could afford a cook" Dad laughed, and for the first time I realized that my father had a sense of humor. The chopping machine wasn't the only hazard in his business. He had an acetylene torch for cutting thick steel plates and beams. To my ears the torch hissed louder than a steam locomotive, and when he used it to cut through steel, it blew off thousands of tiny pieces of molten metal that swarmed around him like angry fireflies.
Many years later, during my first daily visit, after drinking the juice my father had squeezed for me, I walked over, hugged him and said, "I love you, Dad." From then on I did this every morning. My father never told me how he felt about my hugs, and there was never any expression on his face when I gave them. Then one morning, pressed for time, I drank my juice and made for the door.
Dad stepped in front of me and asked, "Well!""Well what!"I asked, knowing exactly what. "Well!" he repeated, crossing his arms and looking everywhere but at me. I hugged him extra hard. Now was the right time to say what I'd always wanted to. "I'm fifty years old, Dad, and you've never told me you love me." My father stepped away from me. He picked up the empty juice glass, washed it and put it away. "You've told other people you love me." I said, "but I've never heard it from you." Dad looked uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. I moved closer to him. "Dad, I want you to tell me you love me." Dad took a step back, his lips pressed together. He seemed about to speak, then shook his head. "Tell me" I shouted. "All right I love you" Dad finally blurted, his hands fluttering like wounded birds. And in that instant something occurred that I had never seen happen in my life. His eyes glistened, then overflowed.
I stood before him, stunned and silent. Finally, after all these years, my heart joined my head in understanding. My father loved me so much that just saying so made him weep, which was something he never, ever wanted to do, least of all in front of family. Mom had been right. Every day of my life Dad had told me how much he loved me by what he did and what he gave. "I know, Dad, "I said. "I know." And now at last I did.