I remember the first time I heard my dad swear when he was angry. (As opposed to the times when he fake swore, like with the "What did the fish say when it ran into the wall" joke we all thought was so funny.)
I don't remember what he was angry about or who the shouting was directed to (it wasn't at me, I know), but I remember standing at the top of the staircase leading to the basement room my brothers shared at the time and being surprised. I was old enough to know that my dad got mad, but he never yelled like that, and he never swore like that either.
I don't remember what I did next, exactly. I know I ended up in my room. I have vague memories of my brother being there with me - maybe both of them. Sometimes in this scene, I am crying from shock and fear, other times I am calmly trying to keep my brothers out of the way so that things could calm down. The one thing I do remember is not very long after the noise of the basement, my father, who has always seemed to be the tallest person in the world (although I know that at 6'1" he is hardly considered overly tall), hunched into my room a broken man. With tears rolling freely down his face he apologized profusely to me and to my brothers (if they were there) for his anger and for saying what he did. I think we hugged him. I remember him leaving the room slowly, still downcast.
I remember feeling an overwhelming surge of love for my father as he left. It was clearly not his proudest moment, but the speed and honesty of his apology left me without doubt that my dad loved me. That he was not so proud or grown up that he couldn't apologize to those some would consider beneath him. I ached that he hurt so much and wished that he could know how much it meant to me that he would be so very open and raw with what he felt. It wasn't a stiff or brief apology, it was sincere and intensely honest.
I have a very special relationship with my father. Unlike my mom, with whom I have always gotten along with easily, dad and I had to work to get along. We share a similar personality gene, he and I - a gene that is often dominated by stubbornness and a strain of perfectionism that means that we expect the best in others and better of ourselves. It means intense conversation and the tendency to say more than we really need to to make a point. It also means a rough exterior that is easily misunderstood because on the outside we can appear mean or judgmental or oblivious. It meant a childhood of regular bickering between the two of us (with poor mom stuck in the middle playing referee. She hated that.)
But I can tell you - my dad has the softest heart of anyone I know, even if it isn't obvious by casual observation. I know this because he is quick, so quick, to rectify a wrong when he recognizes it. Because of the time he took when I was young to take his little girl to the theater, even when she was too little to really appreciate the experience. Because when they did go to the theater, he dressed up for her. Because he sat through any number of lengthy recitals and ridiculous children's plays. Because when I didn't get cast in my first school play, he let me cry on his shoulder and promised me in the way that only my dad could that it would get better. Because of how intensely and earnestly he loves and honors my mother. Because he is careful to take time to help me feel special and important and loved. Because of Starbucks gift cards on my birthday. Because of trips to the bookstore. Because my dad is the model to me of hope in trying again. Changing yourself, improving yourself - it's hard. It's so discouraging. But my dad has shown me a model of how powerful humility is. How valuable a virtue it is to cultivate in your life.
So today, daddy, on your birthday - I hope this gives you a tiny bit of a sliver of understanding for the special place you have in my heart. It's yours forever, and I am so glad that it is.