One heroic dad, heroic mom, heroic daughter. If this doesn’t change how you look at life, not much will.
It’s a portrait in true courage, for sure.
One heroic dad, heroic mom, heroic daughter. If this doesn’t change how you look at life, not much will.
It’s a portrait in true courage, for sure.
A grieving Steven R. Woods is sitting, slumped forward, sobbing inconsolably. He hugs to his chest a folded American flag that earlier had covered the casket in front of him.
In 1964 his father—Army Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods—was shot down during a resupply mission near Bu Prang, Vietnam. It took nearly 50 years to find his remains. On March 21 of this year those remains were put into a casket and returned to the earth as a funeral service was held for him at Arlington National Cemetery.
Three rifle volleys were fired to honor Woods and seven other young men killed during the mission. As Woods’ son accepted the folded flag, a U.S. Air Force band played. And then clutching that flag and a framed picture of his father, the younger Woods sat in his chair and surrendered to the pain and grief of having lost his father a half century ago.
Judging from the picture, Steven Woods would have been six or eight when his father was killed—old enough to have early memories of his father, young enough to need him for decades to come.
Gone was the man whose heroic work would take place not on a battlefield or at 24,000 feet above ground but under the roof of a home. Steven Woods lost the father and mentor he was just coming to know. He lost the man who would teach him how to field ground balls. How to play basketball on the driveway or schoolyard court. How to catch and gut a fish. How to respect the girls he would be drawn to. How to respect the men he would grow up with as peers or bosses. He lost the most important man in his life, the one whose love mattered.
Growing up, boys learn hundreds of lessons from their fathers on the paths to becoming men. When to hold the cards life gives you, and when to fold them and start over. They learn confidence by the competence their fathers help instill in them, from things as simple as how to change a bike tire to how to swim, to ski, to excel at school. They learn about God, in ways that are usually subtle and often unspoken. They learn about sex. About responsibility, accountability and authority.
Steven Woods’ sister Lisa lost her father too. If he could have been as heroic in fatherhood as he was in his military service, he would have been the man to reflect back to her her beauty, her lovability, her worthiness. Through his simple acts of attention and affection he would have helped his daughter internalize the lifelong beliefs, “I am attractive. I am interesting. I am worthy. Men are my equal. I don’t need their approval. I belong with them…”
He would have been there for her when she had problems with boys, when she was asked to a dance for the first time, when she had her heart broken. He would have been there during the drama and fury of adolescence. He would have been there to share the burden of disciplining his daughter and son.
Steven Woods and his sister lost holiday celebrations and birthdays with their father. They lost a part of themselves that they never became because their father was gone.
In a world of graphic and gruesome media coverage, the picture of Steven Woods shakes you to the core.
The raw enormity of that loss and grief is reflected in the anguish on his son’s face at his father’s memorial service. His anguish tells far more than the statistics—that 24 million American children live without their biological fathers. That growing up without a father significantly increases one’s chances of committing rape, committing suicide, or ending up incarcerated. The rates of poverty, mental illness, violence, dropping out of school, drug abuse and more are related to growing up without a father.
Mass culture almost trivializes fatherhood. It doesn’t confer status on those who dedicate their lives to it. It doesn’t translate into promotions at work, and in fact hinder careers. Fathers who insist on living balanced lives often fall behind co-workers who abandon their families to 70-hour workweeks.
There are still 1,642 Vietnam War veterans who remain unaccounted for. Those casualties didn’t end in southeast Asia. Nor are they ending in Syria, Iraq, throughout Africa and everywhere else in the world where men are dying by the thousands, filling the prisons, or simply walking away from the sons and daughters they brought into existence.
This is a day to remember Lawrence Woods, and the ordinary, decent men who do their best when no one has prepared them for the extraordinary demands of fatherhood. And just as well, it’s a day to appreciate the enormity of the demands placed upon the daughters who grow up to be single mothers, far too often called upon to fill the shoes left empty by the men who chose to leave or who were taken too early.
The pastor reached out to me by email last Easter. He was so moved by my column about “Katie” that he read it to his congregation. When he finished, he told me, the church was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop, except for those who were crying.
Katie was my sixth grade girlfriend at a middle-class school in east Multnomah County. At 12 she was cute; six years removed from that innocence she was striking, working as a stripper and tucking into her g-string the dollar bills that came flying her way on the stage.
I was living near San Francisco by then. With six years and 600 miles between us, Katie and I had long since lost track of each other.
I found her decades later and asked if she would share her life story with me for my book about fathers and daughters. She was living in Las Vegas, after a long stint in San Diego. She’d relocated there, when she could no longer care for her two kids in Portland, and moved in with a romantic interest she’d met on the Internet.
When I first reached her by email, Katie had no interest in talking with me about her father.
“I am the wrong person for your book. My dad had nothing to do with who I am. Life did. I grew up without a dad. No…I am not pissed off…although it does sound like it with my reply.”
At 15, Katie aborted her first pregnancy. Her next 30 years were a blur of drinking, drugs, strip joints, chain smoking and men who momentarily filled the void left by a dismissive and abusive father.
Her first husband, she found out quickly, was gay. Her second dealt cocaine. A third and fourth were mixed in with three suicide attempts. Her final surrender came in 2001 when she consumed a bottle of Tylenol and chased it with two bottles of wine with as the ultimate pain reliever. She went into cardiac arrest and was in a coma for three days.
Surviving that suicide attempt was a miracle. Within a few years she experienced another miracle, with her father.
When her mother had health problems several years ago, Katie moved to Nevada to live with her for a month—and with her father, the perpetrator of violence against her as a girl. That month turned into two years.
During that time Katie began to see that she did, indeed, have a father, and that he had shaped her profoundly. An email to me about nine months later was more tempered and reflective than her first:
“You know, I really believe that my bad luck with men stems from my relationship with my father. As a grown woman in her fifties, there is still a little girl inside of me who is waiting for her knight in shining armor. I still long for the father I never had. Although these feelings are manageable now, they continue to haunt me.”
Soon after that, she agreed to meet with me and tell me her story for my book. In Nevada, Katie told me, she began venturing alone into the desert. “I found big therapy there,” she said. “You go out there and listen to nothing and you’re going to hear a lot. You can’t run from yourself anymore when there’s nowhere to go.”
During her coma in 2001 she had a communion with God. “That’s when everything turned around for me, because I didn’t see Him, but I knew there was a presence and I was somewhere I’ve never been before in this life. It’s not of this life. It was something completely different.
“I just clearly remember feeling or hearing this thought that said, ‘You have something very large to do. And you have to stay around to get it done.’”
With that spiritual awakening Katie weaned herself from cigarettes, booze, Valium, Xanax, Vicodin and Percoset. As her head cleared, so did her relationship with her father.
“From age 51 until 53, that’s when my relationship with my father was repaired, because I was repaired. I got him to try to see life sober, to see the beauty in things around him, to get in touch with himself and his feelings and his past.”
Her father began to notice the miracle that was his only daughter. “He saw me working with my art, my painting, my jewelry. He got to know how I think and how I feel. We both grew in that two and a half years and our relationship benefited from it immensely. I’m not mad at him anymore. He was a very sick man and he didn’t know how to ask for help.
“It took two years for me to realize the man loves me. He just didn’t have the right tools to show me and he didn’t have the tools to be a good parent. Now when we’re together, we have a great time. It’s almost as if he’s at peace now and he’s let go of his issues and forgiven himself.”
He first told Katie he loved her when she was 52. “I about fell over,” she said. “I actually stopped what I was doing and turned around and said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I love you. I think you should know that.’”
Then they stood together and cried. “I told him that I’ve forgiven him. It choked me up, because I thought he was just a hard-nosed jerk. But he’s a real soft man. I think the years of abuse that he did to himself and the way his mother treated him, he just didn’t know how to get off that.
“I am truly grateful I have him now, rather than never having him and holding on to the anger and resentment that followed me all my life. How stifling it was for me and him, also.”
Katie and I stay in touch now. I recently reached out to her and asked if I could share the next chapter in her resurrection story. She said yes.
Katie now works as a mental health specialist with an agency. “Please tell those who are interested that I am now a successful person helping the mentally ill. I finally make a difference to others in a positive way. I love my job and I love my life now.
“When I went to the other side in my last suicide attempt and the voice I heard told me I had much more to do, I really believe this is it. There have been countless times when I have been filled with so much joy watching someone leave our facility and they tell me, ‘Thank You. You have no idea how much you have helped me.’ That’s when I feel God’s love bursting inside of me and I am so grateful I made the decision I did to forgive my father. I cannot even begin to describe the spiritual blessing I feel from that.
But I see it all the time in the work I do.
“This work is why He saved me. It has taught me so much. I see women come through who are so messed up. It’s like seeing myself how I used to be. My heart aches for them. They seem drawn to me and I spend a lot of time talking with them and listening to their stories. They come in all broken and sad. After two weeks, they are stable on their meds and everyday they can comprehend more reality and all the work they need to do. When I share with them parts of my own mental illness they ask me so many questions…How did you get well? What is your secret?
“Basically I tell them I give it to God and I worked very hard to save my life. When they leave they are stronger and hopeful. This makes my heart smile, that I have touched them enough to want to try.
“I hope you are as proud of me as I am of myself. It’s taken my whole life to get here. Some find their way faster than others. Some never find their way at all….but I did.”
Sometimes a stepfather enters a daughter’s life and sends it spiraling downward. And for every one of those, there’s a stepfather who steps in and steps up for a daughter. Sheree is one of those daughters.
When we met, Sheree was in her mid-forties, and had worked in mortgage banking, high tech, and most recently as a professional photographer. Her father grew up in a family of alcoholism, infidelity, and financial instability. When he was ten years old, he was molested by another boy at a movie theater. Sixteen years later, that scarred boy lived inside a man of 26, with a 19-year-old wife and two-month-old daughter.
Sheree recalled her father’s narcissism, how as a little girl she once asked him to pick her up, only to be told, “I don’t have time for you, I’m trying to do my hair.”
She talked about how conflicted she was growing up—getting pieces of a normal family life from her father, and having him shatter it at the same time; wanting to be with a father, yet feeling hatred and resentment toward him for his selfishness and sexual abuse that started when she was five.
“I disliked him so much that it was always a fight going on in my mind about, ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. But you’re my father and I want to love you. So I would want to do stuff with him, but then I wouldn’t.”
Her father’s sexual abuse continued until Sheree was sixteen. Her younger sister, who had also been abused, helped Sheree tell their mother about it.
“That was the beginning of the end of their marriage. At that point, I was perfectly fine with my mother not being married to my father any more. I had no guilt about it. I didn’t feel like it was my fault, I didn’t feel like it was gonna be a burden that I would carry. It practically put my mother in the grave, that she didn’t know, that it went on, and it was her child. How could he do that to his own flesh and blood? She never, ever, ever made me feel bad about not coming to tell her. My father never denied it.”
Although the damage her father inflicted was profound, Sheree had other men in her life who offered some counterweight to her father, such as teachers and then her stepfather.
“My mom remarried when I was about eighteen, and I wasn’t really happy about it. I wanted Mom to stay single. But then I got to know her husband, and I thoroughly enjoyed him. I moved in with them for about a year after my divorce, while I was going through therapy. That’s when I really got to know Grant, and the compassionate, fatherly side of who he was. And that’s when I fell in love with him as a dad. He kind of plugged the holes of all those emotional needs of a father that I had.
“I kind of felt whole, like ‘Wow, this is like having a dad! This is like having a mom and a dad and I can sleep at night.’ That was really a big one for me: a safe place to be. I can come home and I can sleep at night and not wonder who’s going to come in my room.
“Grant was really gifted in the therapy side of life. He was a real estate appraiser and I worked for him during that time when I lived with them. During the time that I worked for him, he shared so many things with me about being married and trust and relationships, and everything a dad would say to someone that age. It was just unbelievable to me to have somebody like that, that you can trust, you can love, that loves you and it’s unconditional. It made me feel whole.
“He passed away last May, of early onset Alzheimer’s. The last few years of his life, I helped Mom care for him. He had to go into a home the last year of his life, so I would visit him every day, and try to be there for lunch time and feed him and make sure he was okay.
“That was a really hard time, and a very sorrowful loss. Sometimes I just can’t believe that he’s gone.” Sheree began crying. “I just can’t believe it. On every card I sent him, I would always write that God brought him to our family, that he was our gift from God. He really, really was.”
Dr. Kelly Flanagan, a licensed clinical psychologist and happy father of three, keeps a fantastic blog, full of wonderful opinions and personal advice. He has made a habit out of writing letters to his young daughter, to help teach her about the world. But not only his daughter could benefit from reading his wise words.
Check out what he had to say about the make-up and fashion industry. They are great words to live by.
Dear Little One,
As I write this, I’m sitting in the makeup aisle of our local Target store. A friend recently texted me from a different makeup aisle and told me it felt like one of the most oppressive places in the world. I wanted to find out what he meant.
And now that I’m sitting here, I’m beginning to agree with him. Words have power, and the words on display in this aisle have a deep power. Words and phrases like:
Instant age rewind,
Choose your dream,
Nearly naked, and
When you have a daughter you start to realize she’s just as strong as everyone else in the house—a force to be reckoned with, a soul on fire with the same life and gifts and passions as any man. But sitting in this store aisle, you also begin to realize most people won’t see her that way. They’ll see her as a pretty face and a body to enjoy. And they’ll tell her she has to look a certain way to have any worth or influence.
But words do have power and maybe, just maybe, the words of a father can begin to compete with the words of the world. Maybe a father’s words can deliver his daughter through this gauntlet of institutionalized shame and into a deep, unshakeable sense of her own worthiness and beauty.
A father’s words aren’t different words, but they are words with a radically different meaning:
Brilliant strength. May your strength be not in your fingernails but in your heart. May you discern in your center who you are, and then may you fearfully but tenaciously live it out in the world.
Choose your dream. But not from a department store shelf. Find the still-quiet place within you. A real dream has been planted there. Discover what you want to do in the world. And when you have chosen, may you faithfully pursue it, with integrity and with hope.
Naked. The world wants you to take your clothes off. Please keep them on. But take your gloves off. Pull no punches. Say what is in your heart. Be vulnerable. Embrace risk. Love a world that barely knows what it means to love itself. Do so nakedly. Openly. With abandon.
Infallible. May you be constantly, infallibly aware that infallibility doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion created by people interested in your wallet. If you choose to seek perfection, may it be in an infallible grace—for yourself, and for everyone around you.
Age defying. Your skin will wrinkle and your youth will fade, but your soul is ageless. It will always know how to play and how to enjoy and how to revel in this one-chance life. May you always defiantly resist the aging of your spirit.
Flawless finish. Your finish has nothing to do with how your face looks today and everything to do with how your life looks on your last day. May your years be a preparation for that day. May you be aged by grace, may you grow in wisdom, and may your love become big enough to embrace all people. May your flawless finish be a peaceful embrace of the end and the unknown that follows, and may it thus be a gift to everyone who cherishes you.
Little One, you love everything pink and frilly and I will surely understand if someday makeup is important to you. But I pray three words will remain more important to you—the last three words you say every night, when I ask the question: “Where are you the most beautiful?” Three words so bright no concealer can cover them.
Where are you the most beautiful?
On the inside.
From my heart to yours, Daddy
I am loving this post by blogger Robin DesCamp…rock on, girl.
Leilani was the first woman to open my eyes to the profound difference a stepfather can make. She was a single mother raising two children when we met, tall and striking, of Hawaiian, Portuguese, and Scots Irish ancestry.
Her biological parents met in 1962. Her father was an artist, her mother an aspiring lawyer with little interest in children. “She was told she could never have them,” Leilani told me. “So she was studying to go to law school, and was focused on politics and living an intellectual life with an artistic husband. My mom, to this day, says, ‘I don’t do babies. I don’t like little kids.’ And it’s true.”
Soon, the woman who couldn’t have kids was pregnant with twins.
“That absolutely changed the course of the life she had planned,” Leilani said. “To try to save the marriage, they decided to move to Hawaii. They thought it would help if they were with my mom’s family, with the additional family support that comes with large extended families.”
That attempt didn’t work, and Leilani’s parents divorced within a few years. Leilani grew further from her father, uncomfortable with his idiosyncratic ways, and angry with him for leaving.
Shortly after the divorce, Leilani’s mother married a man she had known since childhood. He had children from his first marriage, and the families melded easily. “I was in fourth grade when they married,” Leilani told me. “He never treated us any differently than he treated his own kids. I was the only girl and so I got a lot of extra attention. I think he was happy to have a daughter around.”
One of her earliest memories is of her dad laying down the law.
“I remember my mom saying I couldn’t have this pair of shorts and so I asked him for them and he got them for me. And then, it was a big blowup about it and he came to me and said, ‘You can’t do that again. It was not fair, because she had said no. I am here for you, but you cannot set us up like that again. I’m not going to allow it.’ That was the end of it. He set the ground rules really clearly. And I never crossed them again. It made me feel like I could talk to him about anything, anything at all.
“There wasn’t one thing I couldn’t tell him or didn’t tell him. I told him, not my mom, when I got pregnant on accident when I was just out of college and I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I had a place.
“He always wanted my mom to have the best of everything, and just doted on me and adored me as the girl; he’d gleam with pride and he was always so encouraging and just a dad. He taught the hard lessons that needed to be taught, but was also the soft place to land when I needed the soft place to land, the protector.
“He participated in our sports, was there for every swim meet. And when my mom couldn’t be bothered with my track meets, my dad came to every single one of them.”
“He was a really fun guy. He had this sort of grumpy old man personality to him, and was sort of gruff. His dad was verbally awful and was ridiculously hard on my dad. They grew up pretty poor, and my dad was the provider and caretaker for his siblings. But he had this real soft side to him when it came to me. And he was really hard-working but didn’t always succeed.
“He owned his own insurance agency. He ended up with a gambling problem and he lost his business to it. But I think it was the constant pressure to live up to my mom’s expectations of what providing looked like. I think it got to feel impossible.”
Leilani cried as she spoke of her dad walking her down the aisle when she got married. He was ill, his remaining years numbered. Leilani watched his health, finances, and marriage deteriorate. “My mom actually kicked him out. She divorced him, because she didn’t want to be financially responsible for him, though they only lived apart for about eight months. Then they lived back together again and he always wanted to get remarried, but she never would.
“He went door-to-door selling mouthwash and pantyhose that don’t run and tried selling cell phone card plans before those were really a thing and doing multi-level marketing and tried any number of things to make something go. And he never could make it go. I think that stress was the catalyst for him getting sick. That loss was humiliating and I don’t think he ever recovered from it.
“I put a credit card in both of our names to try to help, and tried to be there for him in all those ways he was there for me. He never used the credit card. But I just couldn’t imagine him not having a safety net, because my mom wouldn’t help him and she was like, ‘Tough luck, it’s your fault.’”
Leilani broke down as she thought back to the last time she saw the man who refused to shrink as her father, even if he was selling mouthwash and pantyhose door-to-door.
“I took my son home when he was three months old to see my dad. And he was 80 pounds, but getting up and walking, accomplishing something every day. When it was time for my mom to take us to the airport, he was standing at the front door waving and smiling. And I got back in and out of the car five or six times, because I knew when I left I would never see him again.
“And the last time, he said, ‘Baby, you have to go. You’re going to miss your plane.’ And I said, ‘But if I go, then this is the last time I’m going to hug you, the last time I’m going to hold you.’ And I knew it and he knew it. And I’m just crying and he started to cry. And he said, ‘It’s not the last time. We’ll see each other again.’ He was a very spiritual person, and that’s what he was referring to. And he had tears running down his face.
“Right before my daddy died he asked me to give my father another chance. He said, ‘Just get to know him as a man and a person and let him be a grandfather.’
“My dad knew my kids would need a grandpa and he saw my father’s positives. I think he also saw where my father and I have a lot of similarities and knew that the emotional connection that I didn’t have with my mom could be found in my father. And because my dad asked, I’ve given my father another chance. And I have a pretty remarkable relationship with him that is growing in understanding and depth.”
Today Leilani celebrated what would have been her dad’s seventy first birthday.
Lindsay Lohan and I went through a stretch where we didn’t think much of each other.
OK, she’s never thought anything of me; she doesn’t know me. And I thought I knew her. Well, sort of. I thought she was a spectacular child actress whose fame, riches and success turned her into another spoiled, narcissistic drama queen birthed by Hollywood.
The public records of her arrest and rehab history since 2007 detail her infamous jewelry theft, DUII and coke busts, five trips to rehab, car wrecks, jail stints, and a third-degree assault arrest for popping Tiffany Mitchell in the face at a Manhattan nightclub.
I was shocked recently to learn she’s only 27 years old; in recent pictures she looks sick, depleted and broken, at the end of the line. Yet in her childhood images (and films The Parent Trap, Freaky Friday, and Mean Girls), she is spirited and full of life.
Something big happened along the way to adulthood. And she tells the story poignantly in her song “Confessions of a Broken Heart (Daughter to Father).”
The first time I heard the song was during a recent meeting of the dads group I’m in, part of The Abba Project. There weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the room of a dozen dads when the music video ended.
It’s a muscular song musically and moving lyrically. It tells the story of Lohan’s father, a former Wall Street trader and her mother, a one-time singer and dancer. They split when she was three, reunited, then split for good in 2005. Two years later Lohan’s drug, alcohol and legal troubles began saturating the tabloids. Shortly thereafter, she wrote the song, and the video (which is on the home page of this site) is worth the four minutes if you have any interest at all in fathers and daughters. It is truly the confession of a broken heart.
“And I wear all your old clothes, your polo sweater
I dream of another you, one who would never
Never leave me alone to pick up the pieces
Daddy to hold me, that’s what I needed
So, why’d you have to go?
Why’d you have to go?
Why’d you have to go?
Daughter to Father, Daughter to Father
I don’t know you, but I still want to
Daughter to Father, Daughter to Father
Tell me the truth, did you ever love me?”
It’s a hard video to watch, not because it’s the story of a world-class talent circling the drain, but because it’s the public version of a story that plays out anonymously all over the world.
The world is full of women like Lindsay Lohan, with broken hearts on the inside and broken lives on the outside, women without the fortune and lawyers to prop them up. Jails are full of these women. So are rehab centers and strip clubs. So are companies, law firms, and workplaces of every sort.
Word has it that LiLo has turned up at a few events in recent weeks looking clean and sober. Let’s hope she’s on the rebound for good. She has much to offer the world. And so does your daughter.
For any man thinking of becoming a father, or who is already raising a young daughter, watch the video. If you’re married, or have been, you get that her parents struggled as a couple. Raising a daughter and hanging in there through thick and thin may be the hardest work you ever do. It can break your heart. It can break your bank account. There’s a blur, an instant, between playing with American Girls dolls and anorexia, cutting, booze, drugs and promiscuous sex.
Watch the video, Dad, for yourself and your daughter. She and Lindsay and every other daughter are wired the same deep down inside. They need someone they can trust and feel safe with, someone to hold them and hug them and love them. They need you. As she cries in her song, a “Daddy to hold me, that’s what I needed.”
A wonderful, moving video on fathers and daughters from a woman I’d given up on years ago. Now I get her story. I’ll have a blog post and Oregonian column on it later next week. But for now, watch and listen to the lyrics on my home page. It may break your heart. It broke hers.
Well worth the couple minutes! I remember those days well…exhausting and joyful beyond measure. Please share!