Thanksgiving 2008. My family went to my sister’s in Boston and I stayed home to work on my grad school and to attend youth ministry events that I had scheduled for around Thanksgiving.
There was no way I was spending the holiday with my still-less-than-5-years divorced parents, 4 siblings, plus a friend or two, all staying in my sister’s home in Boston. That was too many people in a too small space.
But see, I found out from my sister (right after they returned home) that my father had given her a new Nikon digital camera (her birthday is in June) plus a camera bag AND some lenses. I was all sorts of out of joint over that. Didn’t my dad know that I was the photographer? He’d given me an SLR when I was in high school, and I’d been taking pictures for years. How dare my sister encroach on that and get the camera as a gift. Did he think she was more talented? Did he love her more? Why her? All sorts of emotions and questions went through my mind and my heart. I was angry and hurt. So I handled it like any grown adult: I said nothing.
A few weeks later, at the beginning of December, I attended the National Catholic Conference on Youth Ministry (NCCYM) and I heard Lee Nagel share the story I told here. Quiet tears leaked from my eyes as I listened to Lee: the story spoke to everything that my relationship with my dad was not–everything that my spirit craved and my heart mourned. The story captivated me with its simplicity and beauty.
When I returned home, my dad and I met for lunch at a place near my grad school. Although I don’t remember much about it, I’m certain that my posture was defensive and argumentative. My dad even called me out on how I didn’t let him in, and I denied it: I gave him exactly what he earned. No less. No more.
One thing did transpire though that I remember clearly. I told him that I was hurt by his purchased of my sister’s camera: my bulky camera bag was awful and my camera still used film. Why did she deserve a new camera? (She actually shared her photographs with my dad…. I, on the other hand, kept to myself).
Later that week my dad called me up and asked me to come over: he’d bought a new camera bag for me and wanted to give it to me before Christmas. Begrudgingly, and still angry, I drove the 45 minutes to his house. Why had he bothered with the stupid bag? It was like a crumb. When I arrived, we went into his room and visited for a bit. He handed me the bag, and I thanked him, then went to use the bathroom (on the 3rd floor) before I left. I hustled down the steps, eager to leave–there was my dad, sitting on the couch, a big UPS box next to him.
“Santa stopped by early, left something, and asked me to give it to you.” I went over to the box, slowly, a pit in my stomach, for I knew what would be inside. I looked at him and I stuttered, “Dad… you didn’t … I didn’t tell you so that…” My eyes were leaking again and my throat was choking as I opened the box. Inside was the exact same camera. With 2 digital lenses. I couldn’t breathe. I turned and I said “Dad, I didn’t tell you so that you would buy me the camera. I wasn’t trying to make you do this.”
This distinction was key, for in prior years, I had exploited my dad’s guilt: I figured I might as well get what I could, right? With the camera though, I had not tapped into that persuasive, manipulative me. I had just shared about how I was hurt.
What did my dad answer? “I know I didn’t have to. I wanted to.”
And in that moment, as if a semi-truck had run over me, I knew, that my dad had done the best he was able to. He loved me, as he was able, not because of my perfect grades, my attendance at Oxford, my triple major, or anything else. He loved me, because I was his.
That camera has gone many places and chronicled many lives since that day. Here are some of the joys it’s captured.