I would recognize those eyes anywhere.
They are bright blue and crinkle at the corners when he smiles. They are kind and compassionate most of the time, but harden icily when he’s mad. My dad’s eyes never lie. I have measured my entire life by them – every success, every failure.
Dad will be 75 years old on his next birthday. In this photo, he is just three.
I used to look at this picture and marvel at how my father, who was so imposing and intimidating, could ever have been so small. It was impossibly mind-blowing that he once was a kid too. To me, he was larger than life.
While my mom was my playmate, Dad was the disciplinarian. He was an Air Force pilot – a literal hero – swooping into my life to administer justice. He was judge and jury in a flight suit. “Just wait for your father to get home, Audra” was a common refrain.
By the time I was a teenager, I noticed creases in my dad’s eyes where none had existed before. They seemed harder than the ones in his childhood photo. I stared at the photo again and speculated how a carefree toddler could have transformed into such a strict authoritarian. He had so many rules for me: no friends over on school days, no personal phone calls after dinner. If I brought home a report card with a “B” on it, his eyes expressed the disappointment I’d hear echoed in his voice. “Audra, I know you can do better than this. Now show me,” he’d say.
After I graduated from college and embarked on my own life, I found myself studying this photo again. This time as an adult. I considered the incomplete and one-sided “picture” I had of him.
So, I set out to get to know my father. Over many Sunday dinners, I listened to his tales of childhood misadventures and fully-grown mistakes. I didn’t know that he almost flunked out of college his first time around. Or about the bitter end to his first marriage before finding lasting love with my mother. He described how important his decision to leave the Air Force and become a psychologist was to his aspirations for our family. Each Sunday, I gained more insight into his lifelong regrets and greatest achievements.
Now a parent myself, I see an entirely different child in that photo. It has taken a lifetime, but I fully appreciate all of who my dad is. I see all of his sacrifices, expectations, hopes, and fears. And, when I look into my youngest son’s eyes – the very same bright blues – I see everything; my father, my past, and my future.
During a recent dinner, he casually turned to me and said, “You know, Audra, I don’t always have the right words, but you make me so proud.” I knew it was the truth, because I could see it in his eyes.