My dad passed away right after my 21st birthday. Since then, Father’s Day has been a source of pain, and eventually ambivalence. Now that I have children and I’m forced (by society and Hallmark) to recognize the holiday, it’s making me reflect on what it means to have, and live with, a father.
My own dad wasn’t really a family man. I don’t blame him; he was 20 years old when I was born and had lost his mom due to breast cancer a mere 3 or so years prior. He was just finishing up college and heading to law school in Washington DC, where he worked, studied and played father and husband – a role for which he was not adequately prepared (through no fault of his own). He was the type of guy who loved to have a good time. He always made me laugh with his quick wit and biting sarcasm. He loved to socialize, whether it be entertaining friends at the house, hanging out at his beloved “Club 44” or spending time with his numerous siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles at the family farm – life was one big party.
The problem was, as his child, his life was one big party. All that fun didn’t leave much time for parenting (even if no one really “parented” back in the ‘70s). The result is that I didn’t really know my dad. As a kid I spent much of my time wanting more from him to no avail. My grandfather is the one who accompanied me to Father/Daughter dances. Family vacations didn’t happen. Family dinners – if they occurred – were a disaster as my parents fought often. When they finally divorced, I felt nothing. He apologized to me that he had to leave. My flat-faced response: “But you’re never here anyway.”
After my parents split, my dad moved out to his nearby bachelor pad, replete with a water bed, male roommate and dishes caked with week-old food – not a place fit for his two young children to visit often, so we didn’t. Eventually he remarried – a wonderful woman with 3 kids of her own – and was ready to settle down. He lived in a beautiful, clean (!) house and welcomed me into this new life with open arms. By this time, however, I was in college – gone from my hometown with little interest to be part of his new family. We therefore butted heads often – he wanted more from me whereas I was done wanting. The result: a very strained father-daughter relationship.
I remember once that a friend of mine overheard my dad’s secretary calling me “his bitch of a daughter” for only coming in when I needed something. This stung – badly – mostly because I knew she was right – I did tend to come around more often when in need. Like most in my father’s life, however, she didn’t know the whole story. She only saw my dad as this successful attorney and devoted husband and step-dad who spoke of his children in glowing terms. How could I be so nasty? Then again, how could I not?
The last year of his life we began to mend our ways. We’d had a big heart-to-heart one rainy fall afternoon. We met for lunch and did our typical dance: I wasn’t around enough; I only wanted him for his money; he wasn’t a father to me, etc. Finally he broke down and started to cry. Do you know what it’s like to see your father break down in tears? It’s something you never forget. He apologized to me for being such a lousy dad. He explained that he hadn’t been prepared for fatherhood; he did his best but he didn’t have it in him at the time. He wanted to make it up to me, and I finally felt ready to let him try.
He’d start by visiting me more often at college. To my surprise and delight, he made good on that promise. He next vowed to come visit me in London that spring when I would be studying abroad. That promise, unfortunately, he couldn’t fulfill as he told me his health wasn’t too great. “Doctor’s orders” he told me when he explained that he wouldn’t make the trip. I felt disappointed, but admittedly put my head in the sand and ignored the elephant in the room – cirrhosis of the liver. He seemed fine; still working like a dog at his law practice and partying like a rock star. How sick could he be?
The following fall my dad went on a trip to Florida. Upon his return, his illness got the best of him and he slipped into a coma. I raced home from school and visited him at the hospital daily. A few days later – on Thanksgiving no less – he came out of his coma. His prognosis, as I understood it, was good. When I went to visit him, he told me how much he loved me and how he vowed to change his life – his days of partying were over. “It’s jello and water for me from now on” he assured me.
Knowing my dad, a life of jello and water was hardly one worth getting too excited over. I don’t know if it was the illness itself, or the prospect of such a bland future but he didn’t make it. On December 5th came the phone call everyone of us dreads receiving.
I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. My roommates and I were up late, doing some ridiculous Cosmo quiz. The phone rang and one of my roommates picked it up from her room. She emerged a few seconds later, tears in her eyes, telling me I needed to speak to my mom. I didn’t want to. I reluctantly walked toward her outstretched hand filled with dread. Everything felt as though it were moving in slow motion. As I heard my mom’s voice on the other end, I saw all 3 of my roommates encircle me in a tear-filled embrace as I felt the full gravity of my mom’s words: “Dad’s gone.”
There since hasn’t been a day that I haven’t thought about my father. I think of regret – that I wasn’t with him when he died; that I never got to tell him how I felt about him. I think about the sadness I feel for never truly getting to know him, and for him not really knowing me. Mostly I think about what could have been. We could have developed the father-daughter relationship I’d been dreaming of my entire life; he could have watched me in court once I became a trial attorney and given me pointers; he could have been a fun-loving, kind grandfather to my boys. There is so much that could have been…but never was.
Now I watch my husband be a fantastic father to my sons. Witnessing this healthy father-son relationship feels foreign to me. What’s even more amazing is watching my brother become an incredible dad to his two little boys. Where did he get those skills? Then I remember that, even though my dad wasn’t always there for us, he did love us passionately. He did teach us that life is to be enjoyed; that humor is the panacea for all that ails you, and – most importantly – nothing ends a boring game of GI Joe like a huge fart/stink bomb. I can’t tell my Dad that I appreciate the gifts he brought, but I’ll make sure my kids tell their Dad, often.
This Father’s Day I implore you to reflect on the individual gifts your fathers and husbands bring to your families. Now turn to those men and tell them you recognize and appreciate those gifts, no matter how trivial they might seem. Do this often and avoid living with the regret I too often feel.
Happy Father’s Day to all, but especially to my husband and my brother – two of the best dads I know. And to my Dad…a man I’ve come to finally understand. I love and miss you every day.