This is a little outdated, but I just came across it.

A Father’s Tough Love

What a gruff dad taught his sons about parenting, work and dying
June 14, 2008; Page W1

During my 1960s boyhood, Father’s Day was an awkward occasion. It required my brothers and me to express love to a man who considered such talk girlish, and who knew we feared more than liked him. Only for the sake of Mom did Dad and his five boys put on a Father’s Day act.

But after the death of my father last month, I understand that those fake-feeling gestures back then had conveyed a lot of truth, and that the expression of love between a father and his boys can be — maybe should be — at times difficult. As a parent raising his family in Kansas City, Kan., Gerald Robert Helliker wasn’t perfect. But unlike many of today’s fathers — including me — he never sacrificed his principles in a bid for our approval, never tried to be cool around us. A tough guy, he expected the same from his boys, and last month he offered a final challenge: Could we — will we — die as bravely as he did?

Time has long been famous for elevating the son’s view of the father. Mark Twain, recalling that at 14 he felt contempt for his father, reportedly quipped that at 21, “I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Yet between my childhood and my father’s death, something larger than either of us happened: A style of fathering fell out of fashion. It was a style that placed Dad at a certain distance, that required him to scoff at scraped knees and hurt feelings, that often cast him in the role of bad guy.

It’s a style that parenting experts in growing numbers believe had some virtues. Nostalgia is deepening for the old-fashioned law-and-order father, and not only among Christian family organizations. A coalition of scholars and psychoanalysts are publishing a book this fall called “The Dead Father: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry,” based in part on the premise that society has suffered as dads have become more maternal and less authoritarian.

“The whole culture needs the father back,” says Lila Kalinich, a Columbia University psychiatrist who served as senior editor for the book. “Fathers substantiate law and order. Fathers can create a sense of womanliness in daughters and bring the male children into manhood.”

In managing a mess of boys, my mother used sweetness, then the withholding of sweetness, and finally tears. When those tactics failed, we got the nuclear option: “I’ll tell Daddy.”

Nobody looking into the eyes of “Daddy” could mistake the seriousness of his threat to get physical. Once, when he took my younger brother and me to a professional wrestling match, three 20-something toughs cut ahead of him in the concession line. “No,” Dad bellowed, his index finger in their faces. “I’ll take all of you.”

They laughed; Dad was past 40, after all. Then they noticed he had massive arms and the eyes of a killer. One after another, the tough guys moved behind Dad. For my brothers and me, it was always thrilling to watch him strike terror into somebody other than us.

Forty hours a week, Dad stood behind a meat counter in a blood-splattered white apron, swinging a cleaver. He devoted just as many hours to newspaper delivery, having bought for $28,000 the franchise to deliver the morning and afternoon editions of the Kansas City Star to more than a thousand readers. His daily schedule: newspaper delivery from one until four in the morning, meat cutting from eight until early afternoon, newspaper delivery during an extended lunch hour, then back behind the counter for an evening of cutting meat. At Sunday Mass — which he never once missed — he relied on Mom’s elbow to keep him awake.

His double duty paid off. We moved into a nice house on a gorgeous street in an otherwise distressed section of Kansas City, Kan. And Dad was able to send my brothers and me to expensive Catholic schools.

But his work schedule made him remote. When we were little, we envied boys who delivered papers for Dad: They seemed closer to him than we did.

Yet when our own turn came, around age 10, to join his delivery crew, he treated us harshly, in part to show the other boys that his sons got no special treatment, but mostly because of his belief in the benefits of withstanding hardship. Even when sleet pelted us through the open windows of the delivery truck, Dad sat behind the wheel (his own window open) and refused to crank up the heat. His philosophy of raising boys — make them tough — was articulated by his favorite song, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” To settle disputes between his sons Dad bought a couple of pairs of boxing gloves.

He genuinely worried that we — with our nice house and private education — might turn out soft. Yet in seeking to prevent that, he didn’t know when or how to ease up. He never told us he loved us. Sometimes I thought he didn’t like us. (Some of this was surely Oedipal: He didn’t like sharing Mom with five boys any more than we liked sharing her with him.)

But one night, Mom told us something I never forgot. In the privacy of their bedroom, she said, Dad had burst into tears over his inability to express love and affection toward us. In communicating that to Mom, Dad surely knew she would relay the message to us.

Eventually, that message reached us in another way. As my brothers and I got older, we discovered that Dad’s countless friends (nearly 500 people paid respects at his wake last month) knew every last detail about us. “I get tired of hearing about you boys,” a meat-cutting colleague of Dad’s once told me. “You kids are all he talks about.”

Somehow, knowing he’d declared to others his love for us meant more to me than if I’d heard it from his lips.

Age and grandchildren — the usual factors — softened Dad. He became easy with affection, using both hands to embrace mine when I arrived home for a visit.

He worked three jobs into his early 70s. Then his heart weakened, and a few weeks ago came the diagnosis of acute leukemia. Still a fighter, he agreed to initiate chemotherapy. But the first round of it knocked him out, placing him in a coma. Despite pressure from an oncologist who seemed committed to further chemotherapy, my brothers and I persuaded my mother to opt against any further life-saving measures. My mother had spent five years nursing her own mother in her last years just before Dad’s health declined, and she was exhausted.

Yet before his doctors could release Dad from a tangle of tubes and machines, he woke up, alert and clear-headed. This, according to end-of-life specialist David Kessler, is when modern death increasingly goes awry, as the ill and, often, their relatives grasp for — and physicians often promote — every means of survival. “We’ve become a society where death equals weakness, where it almost equals failure,” says Mr. Kessler, author of “The Needs of the Dying” and other books.

It didn’t go that way with Dad. Entering Dad’s room, an intensive-care physician explained that while he was comatose, his sons and wife had decided to discontinue treatment. “In which case,” the doctor said, “we would provide comfort care until you died.”

The doctor cleared his throat. “But now that you’re back among us, it’s your decision.”

We watched Dad absorb the news that his sons and wife had voted against his only hope for survival. Then an expression of peace came over him, and he raised his right hand — his decades-old call for silence.

“You know I have five boys,” Dad told the doctor.

“I think I’ve spoken to all of them,” the physician replied.

“They’re looking after their mother,” Dad said, clearly relieved that his final concern — Mom’s welfare — was covered. Nodding at the medical equipment surrounding him, Dad said, “Mama doesn’t need this. I’m done.”

In the two and a half days that followed, Dad lay in bed alert, cracking jokes, telling stories and expressing gratitude toward (while declining pain killers from) his caregivers. When a Medtronic technician arrived to turn off the defibrillator in Dad’s pacemaker, my father said he understood that this procedure would help him die. Then he chatted up the Medtronic man. On the evening of May 3, surrounded by family, Dad died in his sleep, nine days shy of 77.

For a quintet of sons increasingly aware of our own mortality, watching Dad embrace death without fear was inspiring. It made us grateful, hardly for the first time, for the quality that as kids we often hated: Dad’s toughness.

Even so, when an Air Force bugler played Taps at Dad’s grave site, his boys cried, something we never saw him do.

Write to Kevin Helliker at


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