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How My Long-Distance Dad Became My Best Friend

Growing up, I rarely saw him. Now, we get kicked out of bars for having too much fun.

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Henry is my favorite person to hang out with. We click. We have a great time together, whether we’re watching sports, discussing life, or annoying those around us. Henry also happens to be my dad. But that’s not the reason I enjoy spending time with him. My dad did not raise me. My parents divorced before I started kindergarten. Over a year later, Dad had remarried and was transferred across the country for a job in California. I moved to Cincinnati with my mom.

Throughout childhood, my dad was “vacation Dad.” I visited him often during holidays and summers. He moved around for jobs, and for marriages, so I would fly to various cities… San Diego, Chicago, L.A. On one of my early visits, Dad and I hiked to the top of Cowles Mountain, San Diego’s highest point. What I remember most is the beautiful wood-framed plaque I received after coming home to Cincinnati. The return address was “Division of Natural Resources in San Diego County.” The plaque said something like “In Recognition of Henry and Mark Miller climbing to the top of Cowles Mountain.” At the bottom, above “Director of Natural Resources,” was a signature: “B.A. Climber.” It wasn’t until years later that I realized the actual source of the plaque. Although the plaque was later ruined in a basement flood, I can still picture it, and Dad’s cursive signature: B.A. Climber.

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I know that we went to many places — Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Disneyland — because Dad made me scrapbooks full of pictures with funny captions and other memorabilia. I still have those scrapbooks and pull them out when he visits.  

Growing up, it became apparent how truly fortunate I was. Fortunate because my parents had an amicable divorce and remained friends. Throughout my teenage years, Mom would call him to talk about my behavior. I used to hear about our large long-distance phone bills.

My parents had an agreement that after high school graduation I would move to California and live with Dad. I would work and attend community college while establishing residency to attend state college tuition-free. It was in California that Dad and I began to form our friendship — between a young man and a middle-aged man.

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As our friendship grew, I became jealous of his new wife, the woman he is still married to. I wanted Dad all to myself. As a result of that, along with some homesickness, I decided to return to Ohio and attend a four-year college there. A high school friend and I drove from California to Ohio in the Ford Mustang my dad put a down payment on, with the idea that I would develop credit from paying off the balance. 

The day we left, Dad handed me a copy of his favorite book, As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. On the inside cover, he had written a letter to me. Sharing his wisdom, his view on my maturity as he experienced it, his feelings about our time together, his pride in me. I recall crying as I read his letter during the trip. I lost the book, probably through my multiple moves. Later in life, I bought a new copy of the same book. When I look at the book on my bookshelf, I envision Dad’s cursive words and the emotion I felt reading them.    

After college graduation, I regularly met Dad in Houston, New York, Charleston and other cities for short vacations. We would talk for hours. We would laugh for hours. We debated movies, sports, and politics. In Toronto, we were asked to leave a bar for being too loud while debating the distinction between communism and socialism. They thought we were angry. We were not angry — we were drunk. We still laugh about that today.

And we still meet. It doesn’t matter where. We’re often in our hotel room eating ice cream and loaded fries, watching movies our wives would hate, followed by a large breakfast. A healthy relationship filled with unhealthy food.

When Mom became ill, Dad came to see her. We’d go to the nursing home to spend time with her and reminisce. I vividly remember walking out of the nursing facility, with Dad’s arm around me, both of us in tears. I felt lucky to have parents who still cared for each other so much despite not being together.

Dad and I never worked on cars together. We never built a tree house. We went boat fishing – once. We got lost and almost hit by a freighter. We make fun of each other’s flaws. He has no handyman skills. I have no sense of direction. We poke at each other’s stumbles. His handful of marriages. (“They kept saying yes.”)  My larger handful of job changes. (“I like meeting new people.”) His leg amputation after poor health choices. (“The upshot was I lost 15 pounds.”) Dad and I have both fallen. And we turn those falls into discourse — often with laughter.

Mom has passed away. Dad is an old man now. Each time we meet, I wonder if it will be the last. Growing up, he was Vacation Dad, who lived in sunny California. Now we have a bond, a relationship that transcends the blood we share. We are close friends, with mutual trust and respect. We share each other’s truth and pain. And we are so very stupid together. Just ask our wives or my children, his grandchildren. Henry. Dad. Friend. Our association blood, our friendship chosen.

Mark Miller is a married father of two and statistician living in Cleveland, Ohio. He enjoys hiking with his college-age son and watching horror movies with this 18-year-old daughter.