The 4 Most Important Things My Dad Taught Me

It may strike some as a little odd that it has taken me this long to write an article about the things I learned from my dad.

One would think that this article would have been one of the very first articles written for this site. After all, this is a site dedicated to dads and how we can teach our kids valuable lessons. It makes sense that I would include some of my own dad’s wisdom.

The reason why it took me until now to write about the things my own dad taught me was because it didn’t occur to me.

My dad died when I was twenty-six, but he was in and out of my life ever since my parents separated when I was seven. Since he didn’t live with us, I didn’t get the constant influence that kids with more present fathers got. I wasn’t able to marinate in the lessons that my dad passed down, unwittingly, simply because we lived in the same house.

Also, I always looked at my dad as a cautionary tale, first and foremost. It’s sad that someone’s life can be boiled down to that, especially by their own son, but it’s true.

The big life lesson we learned from Dad was don’t drink too much. While there were other little bits and bobs here and there, like how to field a grounder, the main message I got from Dad was that alcohol has the ability to destroy your life. That was the reason my parents divorced, after all.

That was the main takeaway from my relationship with my father. I never really dug too much deeper beyond that, because that, by itself, was a pretty profound lesson.

My dad was an interesting guy. He had massive potential, but never reached any of it because he was an alcoholic.

My dad could most accurately be described as a reader, a golfer, and a story-teller. He had a brilliant, inquisitive mind that was never satisfied. I am convinced there wasn’t one piece of literature my dad had not read.

And boy could he talk! He definitely had the gift of Blarney and could spend hours talking about any subject. Since he read so much he could deftly converse about just about anything.

His favorite place to be, though, was on the golf course and I am thankful I was able to share a couple rounds with him when I was old enough.  

Dad served in the Marine Corps during Vietnam. He boxed in the Golden Gloves. He rode a motorcycle for a short time. He was a bartender and cab driver in NYC. He loved opera and Shakespeare. He did a stint in the Peace Corps. He went cliff diving in Costa Rica.

For someone who didn’t subscribe to organized religion, he knew the Bible backwards and forwards and could cite passages while having in-depth theological discussions with clergy members. You can take the kid out of the Catholic school but you can’t take the Catholic school out of the kid.

Dad was an excellent second baseman, could catch any pass thrown to him on a football field, and enjoyed kayaking and weightlifting later in life.

He was charismatic and good-looking. He had a wife and three kids.

But he drank too much. And that was it.

When I think about my dad, I feel sad. Sad that Dad could never really succeed in anything, due to his demons.

So what, beyond “Don’t Destroy Your Family With Booze”, did I learn from my dad? Here are the four biggest things…

#1 – Cheating on your wife is the worst thing you can do.

I want to make it clear that my dad never cheated on my mom! But the way this lesson came to me was unexpected.

After my dad died, my mom and I were cleaning out his apartment. Dad didn’t really own much so it didn’t really take very long. One of the interesting things we came across in his apartment was a stack of notebooks that Dad kept as journals. We never knew he kept journals and Dad’s mind was always a bit of an enigma, so we read them.

They were odd, like him. The entries weren’t arranged in any logical way. There were no dates. Nothing was chronological. And what was written in them wasn’t really all that substantial.

Recipes he remembered. Something interesting he heard on NPR. Lists of favorite plays. Words he thought were funny. Everything just scribbled down on the page in no particular order with no particular importance given to any one thing.

There were only two things I can remember from his journals that were important. One was a one-sentence note about how deeply he loved his older brother. The other was a much more random one-sentence note that said…

“There is nothing worse than marital infidelity.”

There was no context. No background. No explanation.

But does that sentence even need explanation? I don’t think it does.

Whenever you hear stories of someone cheating on their spouse, it’s always heartbreaking. Heartbreaking for the person who gets cheated on, sure, but especially heartbreaking when you think about the kids involved.

Kids rely on their parents to provide a safe and stable home. When a man cheats on his wife, he kicks out the supports on which his kids’ sense of security is based. He ensures his kids will never really look up to him. They will never idolize and admire him, the way they used to, because he destroyed the most important thing in their lives: the relationship between their father and mother.

Do you think your son will ever trust you or care what you have to say again after he knows you cheated on his mom? If you raised him right, he will be fiercely protective of her and won’t tolerate some scumbag treating her like crap, even if that scumbag is you.

Do you think your daughter will ever be able to shake the fear that will be embedded in her mind that whatever man she ends up marrying will betray her? You can’t blame her for that. After all, the most important man in her life already did.

All this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the damage it causes the person who gets cheated on. There’s no coming back from cheating. Even if the relationship is “mended” or the couple has “moved on”, there will always be that scar. There will always be the lingering doubt and terror that it could happen again.

Let me be clear, however, that separation and divorce are not in the same category as cheating. Often, separation and divorce are necessary for the ultimate health and happiness of all parties, kids included. My parents’ divorce ultimately benefitted my sisters and me.

Divorce is often the messy and unpleasant culmination of a relationship that cannot work long-term. Cheating is an avoidable and trashy disregard for people one ostensibly cares about. There’s a difference.

Why did Dad include that one sentence about the awfulness of infidelity in his journal? I have no idea. Dad was raised in a strict Irish Catholic household so I imagine the Church’s views of fidelity were baked into his DNA. But I think it was much simpler than that.

He just really, really loved my mom. He knew how lucky he was to have her, which makes it particularly sad that he wasn’t able to keep her.

#2 – Try new things.

For someone who was racked with anxiety, Dad was always willing to try new things and have new experiences. He would always say to us, “You’re not going to die.”

What he meant was that being adventurous usually isn’t going to hurt you. So, try that weird dish on the menu. Travel to that country even though you don’t speak the language. It’s ok. Even if you’re uncomfortable for a little while, it’s not going to kill you.

He would also say that you can’t say you don’t like something until you have tried it. I use that with my kids all the time. I’ll make something for them for dinner and they will immediately turn up their noses. Yes, it annoys me intensely, and I always tell them that they can’t say they don’t like it until they try it.

And what do you know?! Once they try it, they find out they like it. I then explain to them that all of the things they really like (chicken nuggets, pizza, cheeseburgers, chocolate milk) were new to them at one point. They needed to try those things for the first time in order to discover how much they liked them.

They then imagine a world in which they have never tried chocolate milk and that’s usually enough to frighten them into trying whatever I put in front of them.

#3 – If nothing else, it will make a good story.

I have many fond memories of playing catch with my dad, something I’ve happily started doing with my own sons.

I remember when I was nine or ten, we had this little red, rubber football that we would chuck around the yard. At one point, we devised a game where we would punt it back and forth to each other and see how many times we could do it without dropping it. We were out there for hours one day trying to beat our record of sixteen, I believe it was.

As the number approached, we got more and more nervous. There were even a couple kicks that went a little screwy and one of us had to dive to catch them. But we kept the streak alive!

Finally, my dad wound up on number sixteen and sent a perfect, end-over-end punt floating directly down at me. I didn’t even need to move my feet.

Relieved at how easy this catch was going to be, I confidently put my hands up to receive the ball. And then the unthinkable happened!

The ball sprang off my palms and flipped over the back of my head. I frantically lunged backwards and clumsily juggled the ball a few times before collapsing onto the ground…and watching the ball bounce into the grass no more than three feet beyond my outstretched hands.

I was positively deflated that I missed the record-breaking catch! We had worked so hard!

My dad could see that I was annoyed with myself. He told me that, yes, had I caught the ball I would have been happy about it. But I would have forgotten about it ten minutes later. The fact that I DIDN’T catch the ball was memorable and that makes a much better story.

And he’s right. That happened thirty years ago and I still remember that day in the yard kicking that little rubber football back and forth. It has also helped me look on the bright side of things. Sometimes when something gets us down or doesn’t go the way we planned, our initial reaction is to be upset. But if anything, the way things go wrong can sometimes provide fodder later for lively stories. Like I said, my dad loved to talk and tell stories and come to think of it, many of them were comical misadventures that were probably upsetting or stressful in the moment.

But they made for great stories later!

#4 – Find everything interesting.

My mom made a very interesting observation about my dad, and it happened to be during my dad’s funeral.

She was quoting an old friend of dad’s and said, “He found everything interesting.”

Like I said earlier, dad was a voracious reader. As kids, we always joked that the way to get a good gift for Dad was to find the thickest, densest, most boring book in the store (preferably with the highest pile of dust) and get that! Dad would be sure to love it!

And it wasn’t that much of an exaggeration. Dad loved to read so much that if you were chatting with him and mentioned how you read a particular book, Dad would light up and engage you about it as if he had read the same book last week. In reality, it might have been twenty years ago, but he retained everything.

Because he found everything interesting, he was never bored. He could read a random book, or watch a random show, or listen to a random radio program about anything at all, and be fascinated by it.

Finding things interesting requires an openness of mind and a freshness of spirit. It requires a willingness and an eagerness to be impressed. Being around people like that is fun because they have fun wherever they go. On the other hand, don’t we all know someone who is bored with just about everything? Isn’t being around them a total drag?

Life is so much more fun and fulfilling when we allow ourselves to be interested in things.

This article was challenging to write. Challenging but also helpful. Sure, it drudged up memories of someone with whom I had (and still have) a twisty relationship. It also forced me to parse out the good from the bad. Because Dad was definitely both those things. People have nuance.

Even though there are a lot of unhappy memories of my dad, and even though he did a lot of unpleasant things, I never doubted that he loved us. Through all of the craziness, that one fact seemed irrefutable. My sisters may or may not agree, since we all experienced that craziness in different and unique ways, but that was my take-away.

I think it’s nice that I can add to the list of “things Dad taught me”, so it’s no longer just “don’t drink yourself to death”. I think it would make my dad feel proud that what he did and said made it beyond his own shortened life to the lives of my kids.

My six-year-old sometimes says, “Daddy, I wish your daddy was still alive so I could meet him.”

“I wish that, too.”

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  1. Veremund

    My favorite article of yours so far. Really makes me miss my dad. Thanks for that!

    1. richardjconnelly

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share such kind words!