How Conflict Revealed a Father’s Love

320px-Happy_Fathers_Day--pink flowerAs Father’s Day approaches, I’m reminded of the turning point in my relationship with my late father toward the end of his life.

He and I were in the middle of a fight one night, the one and only serious fight we’d ever had, when he paid me the highest compliment he ever gave me:

“There are many things I admire about you, Kate, but your politics is not one of them.”

We were fighting about the Iraq War; it was 2004, I think, and I was visiting my parents on the east coast while I was living in Arizona. My dad was always a staunch Republican, and I was the lone Democrat at that time in our large family. The post-9/11 world had pushed our politics farther apart – he had grown more conservative, and I, more liberal. He was also in his upper 80s by then.

So you might wonder: what was I doing picking a political fight with someone as old as my dad?

But maybe you didn’t know my dad. He was a highly intelligent, charismatic, alpha male right up to the final weeks of his life when he died at age 93. A successful businessman, he was disciplined and tough although he had a sweet and silly side, too.

He was used to winning, and you didn’t debate him lightly even in his old age.

Until that fight, though, we had always been able to discuss politics in a civil, even light-hearted and teasing way, agreeing to disagree. We did so regularly for as long as I could remember. It was a big part of our relationship.

But no more, after that night. The fight had turned dark and accusatory, with recriminations like “you’re wrong” and “no, you’re wrong!” being traded. The kind of hopeless, bitter face-off we’d never stooped to before. But it reflected the times, when our country was in turmoil.

Luckily, no one else had witnessed it. My father and I were off by ourselves, out of earshot of other family members. To my dad’s credit, he was the one who defused it and backed down, refusing to discuss the war further.

I was shaken by our fight, but I also remember being surprised to hear him say he admired me, for “many” things.

He’d never told me that before.

Maybe you’re wondering what those things were. I still do. I never asked and he never said. I was too upset to ever bring it up, after knowing our relationship had changed in a fundamental way.

We never discussed politics again. My dad died five years later.

Sadly, I know too many stories of strained family relationships and friendships – including broken friendships – as a result of our country’s increasingly polarizing politics.

You may have similar stories of your own.

As a society, we remain bitterly divided, and I don’t know how or when it will end. I’ve learned to avoid political debates with people I care about whose opinions differ from mine. I still look back on that fight with my dad with sadness.

But mostly now, I choose to focus on the two positive things that came out of our fight.

1) My father’s compliment. There are many things I admire about you, Kate…

It doesn’t matter what they were. It was mainly a reminder of how supportive my dad was of me throughout my life, despite our differences. Whatever I wanted to do, he said I could do it. He never tried to discourage me, or make me feel like I couldn’t be the best at what I wanted to pursue. He always had faith in me.

2) My father’s decision to defuse the fight. This was unusual, and it took me a long time to appreciate its significance. When things got hot between us, he suddenly calmed and said: “We can’t talk about this anymore.”

He chose to make peace instead of to “win” the fight.

Why?

Because even in conflict, my dad never lost sight of what was the most important thing between us.

Love.