The Last Father’s Day Gift I Gave My Dad
With his father dying of cancer, Peter Himmelman gave the best and most difficult gift a guy can give: closure.
The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Let Me Out (A Practical Guide For Bringing Your Ideas To Life) by Emmy and Grammy nominated musician and entrepreneur Peter Himmelman.
Love can make you a more creative person. Understand that when I use the term creative, I don’t mean that you’ll suddenly have mastery of any particular skill. I mean that the more you love, the less attention you will pay to your inner critic and the freer your thinking will become. Getting space from this inner critic is what allows a person to be fearlessly responsive to what’s taking place around them. This ability to sense and respond is one of the underpinnings of creativity itself, and it is for example a quality a high-level jazz pianist must have to be able to improvise. Research shows that one of the most effective methods of dampening the voice of the inner critic is to develop a more profound relationship with the people you love.
Professor and author, Barbara L. Fredrickson is the director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Fredrickson is known for her pioneering research on the long-lasting emotional benefits of human interconnection. She writes about an interesting behavioral quirk called “hedonic adaptation.” Simply put, this means that people who win the lottery, for example, find that after a short while, they’re no happier than they were before they struck it rich. That’s because they’ve adapted to the change.
According to Professor Fredrickson, our relationships with the people we love (unlike our relationship with fame or material gain) are not subject to hedonic adaptation. From the point of view of neuroscience, the positive emotions that accrue from our healthy, meaningful relationships can last a lifetime. Our brains don’t simply adapt to the deep bonds we have with people as they do with a new car or first class plane tickets. Our interactions with loved ones continue to be profound; they uplift us even with the passage of time. When our relationships are strong, we become better able to set aside our self-critical thoughts and make our creative ideas take shape. Here is a story about something I told my dad that changed my entire life:
In 1978, I graduated high school, and the romantic “poetry” from Prince’s song “Soft and Wet” off his debut album piqued my imagination. How overt, I wondered, could you possibly get with song lyrics? Inspired by Prince, I wrote several songs, thinking, “It’s so damn simple. I can write like this and get famous too!”
The more you love, the less attention you will pay to your inner critic and the freer your thinking will become.
Here are the choruses to some of the songs I wrote:
I’m your fireman show me where you’re burning
I’m your fireman ooh baby I’m coming
I’m your fireman show me where you’re burning
And I’ll be there to hose you down
Torture me all night long
Love me tough love me strong
I’ll be your victim till the break of dawn
Got to move a little faster
Baby Let Me Be Your Cigarette
Baby let me be your cigarette
C’mon and puffa puffa puffa till my tip gets wet
Light me up and baby don’t fret
Cause girl I want to be your cigarette…
While I was writing these “works of genius” — and supposedly having the time of my life — I was in deep emotional pain. My dad discovered a lump in the back of his neck in the autumn of 1979. It took the doctors a week to determine that he had stage-four lymphoma. They figured he had six months, tops. At the time I’d been an avid practitioner of Transcendental Meditation and one of its stated goals was that it could help to flatten the emotional highs and lows that we normally experience. Because I barely reacted when I’d heard the news, I decided then and there that something that could make me this flat to what should have been devastating couldn’t be good and I vowed to quit TM that very night.
I understood later that it wasn’t the TM that had flattened me, but my own propensity to go inside myself, to stay as far away from my feelings as possible. It was as if I’d been playing a sort of double role for myself. In some instances I was hypersensitive and very connected to the grief I was experiencing. In others, I was completely divorced from my emotions. Years later, toward the end of my dad’s life, everything came crashing as the two halves collided.
My dad discovered a lump in the back of his neck in the autumn of 1979 … They figured he had six months, tops.
Amery, Wisconsin – 1983
Our band was finishing its last set at a bar called The Country Dam. It was late and the crowd was so drunk they were falling over one another, screaming for one more chorus of “Fireman.” At four in the morning I pulled up to my parent’s house behind my dad’s white ’83 Chrysler Le Baron, he’d gone all the way to Mankato with my mother to buy this thing. Tired as I was, I couldn’t stop looking at that car, wondering how I’d feel about it when he died. It was Father’s Day after all, and my Mom had planned a big brunch for him in just a few hours. Cousins, aunts, and uncles — everybody wanted to be there to cheer him up. My Mom had asked me to write something funny, some kind of cute ditty to lighten the mood. Even though my dad had outlived the doctor’s dire predictions by four years, we knew that the cancer had progressed to the point where this was very likely his last Father’s Day.
I was pretty wound up from the performance the night before and since the sun was coming up anyway, I couldn’t see any reason to try and sleep. I picked up a guitar. It was an old nylon string that hardly played in tune. I started picking through some chords in a half-trance and began singing softly to myself, just thinking about that Le Baron and how my dad really liked that car. The words came fast and the melody started to take on a shape. Each new line generated more melody and the melody inspired more words.
“When no one is forgotten and nothing goes to waste, when sadness turns to laughter, when anger is defaced …
… you’ll start to know the way I feel about you.”
I knew from experience that when a song comes to you like that, it’s best to get out of your own way—to be as detached as possible, and yet I couldn’t help feeling excited that this was a song for my dad. I thought, “At least now I won’t be the only fool at the brunch without a Father’s Day present.”
“And if I could, I’d run out into the world and tell every boy and girl, to love before love takes itself away … just like I’m loving you this Father’s Day.”
I made a quick recording of the song, and I was so tired and so emotional that I started crying in the last chorus. I didn’t want to let everyone hear me blubbering on tape so I reached over to erase it and sing it again, but at the last second I decided to leave it as was, tears and all.
Whatever façade of normalcy we’d been putting up over the last several months washed away in the emotion of that song.
The next morning I brought the cassette upstairs. The brunch was in full swing: The lox and the smoked whitefish had been taken out of the refrigerator and arranged on platters. The scrambled eggs and onions were warming on the stove. The cinnamon rolls and the cartons of Minute Maid were on the table and the brunch-goers were trying their best to slap on their happiest faces. I put the cassette in the stereo, and I swear it took no more than ten seconds for everyone to break down in tears and exit the room.
Now it was just my dad and me — both of us staring out the big picture window of our den, listening as the song played. As it ended, we held each other and cried. Whatever façade of normalcy we’d been putting up over the last several months washed away in the emotion of that song. I’d wanted to say so many things to him, and for so long. Somehow the song expressed everything so well. From that morning on, my dad carried the cassette around with him in his breast pocket. He died a few months later on Thanksgiving night. We got a call from the hospital as we were sitting at the table; the turkey had never even been carved. As tragic and sad as his death was, I’ve never felt remiss for not expressing how I felt.
Putting my emotions on display was hard. Nonetheless, I felt close enough to my dad to keep the recording intact and then later, to play it for everyone at the brunch. As Professor Fredrickson explains, in contrast to our material possessions, the joy we derive from our most loving relationships does not diminish over time. In terms of creativity, this suggests to me that those deep relationships can gird us to withstand our innate fear of failure. Knowing that we have a rock-solid support system allows us the strength to ignore the negative assessments we have of ourselves and to reclaim a fearless, childlike relationship with the world. That support was the priceless gift my dad gave to me.
Peter Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter, film and television composer, and founder of Big Muse, a company that helps individuals and organizations unlock their creative potential.
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