Learning That My Dad Never Loved Me Perfectly

The healing power of our father-daughter dance

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I grew up listening to my dad’s favorite music. The oldies station in New York, 101 CBS FM, was the only station we listened to in the car. Otis Redding, The Supremes, Aretha. Dad loved to blast music in the living room, and Bob Marley was often on the rotation. When I was in college and my friends would sit around smoking pot and listening to Legend, I’d be brought right back to my childhood. I also inherited my dad’s love of listening to songs on repeat. He once drove from New York to Washington, D.C. listening to “Sad Mood” by Sam Cooke for six hours by rewinding the tape player on the mini van over and over. I don’t think I’ve reached six hours for one song, but I’ve come close.

When it came time to find a song for the father-daughter dance for my wedding, I asked my dad to pick something out. I didn’t think it was a big deal to me. It was one of the areas of my wedding where I felt really flexible and was happy to create a space for my dad to contribute something he liked that was meaningful to him. At least, that’s what I thought.

I sent Dad links to some lists of suggested father-daughter songs. I listened to lots of them, noticing which ones touched me. I loved “Father and Daughter” by Paul Simon, but I knew that Dad probably wouldn’t choose that because he didn’t listen to Paul Simon. There were so many other oldies and artists he loved that captured the same spirit of Simon’s line “there will never be a father who loves his daughter more than I love you.” And I had a favorite that I was secretly hoping he’d chose: “Nothing Can Change This Love I Have For You” by Sam Cooke. “If you wanted to leave me and roam, when you got back I’d just say ‘welcome home,’ cause honey nothing, nothing, nothing can ever change this love I have for you.”

I bet you think this song is about you

Dad took a while to chose a song, I had to remind him about it a few times. Then one day he called to tell me that he found a song that would be great. “What a Wonderful World” by Louie Armstrong.

My heart sank.

I started running through the lines in my head. None of them were about how much a father loves his daughter. Not one. I was confused. I was upset. Really upset. Inexplicably upset, considering how flexible I thought I felt about this dance. I will admit it: I cried. And even as I was crying, I knew that it didn’t make sense, that it was completely out of proportion to the present moment situation. But there was a big sadness that took over and I didn’t know what to do with it except feel it and let it move through me.

As I stayed with this mysteriously over-inflated feeling about the seemingly innocuous father-daughter dance, I started to listen to the part of me that was heartbroken. I realized that it was a young part, a little girl who longed for her daddy to love her perfectly and profess that love publicly. It was a part of me that got hurt long ago, because no one can ever love us perfectly, because none of us are perfect. It was a part that never gave up hope that it could happen, though, and this wedding seemed like just the right time to make this dream come true.

No wonder I was so upset.

For this part of me, everything was at stake. This wedding was her last chance to be redeemed, to experience being truly and fully lovable by her father, and for everyone to see it. Only it wasn’t, of course. There would be no young child with her daddy on the dance floor. Just an adult woman and her father. The affirmation that I longed for couldn’t fill the need from the past, because we can’t re-write the past. The person who can really love that part of me now is me.

You were right, pops

And then that thing happened that so often happens when we let ourselves cry and feel our feelings. After a little while, I started to think more clearly. I could see the situation from a position grounded in the present, and I could see my dad for the man he is today, through the eyes of the adult woman I am today. From there I could see the beauty in the song my dad had chosen. For most of my life I would have described my father as cynical, though he would call himself a realist. Either way, “wonderful world” are not the words he would have used to describe life. But since he retired a few months earlier, his world changed. He felt joyful waking up in the morning. He felt excited to approach each day. And things like his beloved daughter getting married made him feel even more full of love for this “wonderful world.” I could suddenly feel what a gift it was that my dad felt this way about his life. I could see how beautiful it was that my wedding was a part of that. I realized that every part of my wedding did not have to be about me.

“I hear babies cry, I watch them grow. They’ll know much more than we’ll ever know, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

I cried at the reception during the dance with my dad. They were tears of joy and gratitude and love. For him, for the ways he’s loved and supported me, for the look in his eyes when we danced. For this perfectly imperfect life.

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

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