Father’s Day is a dichotomy for me.
On the one hand, with a beautiful 9 year old boy, it’s one of my favorite days of the year. I get taken out to a meal and drinks of my choosing, full permission to take a Sunday afternoon nap, and I even get some kind of really cool man-gift that’s never a tie. Being a father is one of the most magical things in my life right now. Even on my worst, saddest, most stress filled, crappy days, I feel deeply proud of my son and our relationship. He’s brought meaning, maturity and joy to my life I would never have known without his birth. There’s a profundity about being a father that any patriarch with half a heart will know. I believe procreation has this weird affect on our beings. I think it might make us feel more in sync with life and its purpose.
Many years back, I was at a turning point in my life, a nadir, as it were. The best part of that time was some therapy I did with a fantastic feminist/existentialist psychologist. [I know. It’s a mouthful.] While that year of work we did together can’t possibly be summarized here, she said something once about procreation that perfectly surprised me. It seemed out of character with her evolved and carefully thought out positions on life.
She was almost flippant the way she mentioned it during a session, which was particularly unlike her. Existentialists, in general, tend toward the deep, broody, long considered, delayed responses that can make you wonder if they’re still part of the conversation. So there I was, very single, wallowing in some deep angst around turning 40 and wondering whether I would ever find a mate and if so, have kids.
Out of the blue she said, “Oh, you should do it. It’s meaning in a bottle.”
I was completely thrown by that at the time, but in retrospect, I think she was right. There is something deeply anthropological about finding your mate and making a family. It does suddenly bring a lot of things into focus like never before. And not always in the ways we might expect it.
While being a father has been one of the most fulfilling things in my life, having one has been a dramatically different experience. How can any father celebrate Father’s Day without reflecting upon his own? That’s the other side of this coin for me. With the exception of the first 13-14 years of my life, I’ve been mostly estranged from my father for the nearly 4 decades that followed. I’ve made many attempts to heal that rift over that time, none of which succeeded the way I’d hoped. Fantastic sums of money went to both gifted and unremarkable therapists to help me make peace with that. While all of that work helped me heal and grow up more whole, it never provided me with the secret code to mend the cracked relationship with my father.
My Dad has always been a relatively secretive man. I spent a large part of these lost decades trying to understand or guess the contents of his heart. My best theory is that it was broken when my mother left him in the early 1970’s. While my little sister went to live with our Mom, it was decided that a 13-year old boy should live with his father. I was okay with that at the time. I remember feeling much closer to him because he’d been my coach for various sports, and probably because he was a guy. We’d had a very close relationship up until that time and he was kind of a superman to me. For the 3 years that followed, I watched our relationship slide into something completely adversarial with no adult present to help us sort it out. My father fell down and never really got back up.
By age 16, I was forced to leave and moved out of State to live with my Mom and sister.
My intent here is not to go deeply into that, but rather to note that since that break, Father’s Day has always presented some communication challenges. How to communicate with my father on that day? What kind of card should I get him? Do I get him a card at all? If I don’t get him a card, will that mean something? This year I actually looked through 20-30 to finally find one that didn’t say, “Thank you for being the best father ever,…blah, blah, blah…” Yeah, right. Most of them said that, so it was tricky finding one that would feel reasonably authentic for me.
Perhaps it’s the superstitious way in which I try to make meaning out of life, but I’d swear there are times when it tries to communicate through metaphor. This year’s attempt at a Father’s Day card was one of those times.
The card I finally found was one of these painfully dumb cartoon joke cards that I knew he’d love. It was perfect. I don’t intend this in a mean way at all, but my father is one of those guys who thinks he has this incredible sense of humor.
He almost never laughs at other people’s jokes, but will often add something on top of them that he’s dead certain is waaaay funnier than their punch line.
And he doesn’t toss out the line casually either. He leans into it with poorly hidden anger and waits for the laugh. If there’s any laughter at all, it’s the deeply uncomfortable kind like when people chuckle during a stick up. My father can’t tell the difference. He banks it and will refer to it later as proof that he’s a profoundly clever and funny guy.
Anyway, the card I found was perfect. It was somewhat related to him, and somewhat related to my work and had a son talking to his father about an abacus. It was really dumb, obvious humor. He would have liked it as much as he likes anything he doesn’t think of first. I could comfortably bet the pink slip on my car that he would have a come-back on it when we talked on the phone later.
These days, I hardly snail-mail anything, but I knew he’d appreciate a paper card. My annual mixed feelings about the process led to some procrastination. When I finally organized around mailing it, I needed to send it express mail to get it there on time. I included pictures of the family and one particularly cute one of his grandson. The Sunday in question arrived.
I don’t believe my father has ever acknowledged that Father’s Day is also a day that I have celebrated for 9 years. My Father’s Day is a day that netted him his only grand child which I expected him to adore.
So how to have a phone conversation with him on this day? I’m fully cognizant that I could completely let it go and ignore the day, but there’s a part of me that finds it easier to maintain the charade than drop it. Or maybe I just can’t let go of the tattered shreds of hope that our relationship will reconstitute itself. I’m not sure.
It’s complicated and confusing.
Answering machines can be a godsend in this regard. If I time things right, I can get credit for calling, without having to have a conversation. I usually leave something light and vaguely authentic. This year I had all 3 of us call and we were lucky enough to get the machine on the way to church. We all sang “Happy Father’s Day,” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” And then we passed the phone around and said a lot of things like, “Hope you have a nice day,” and “Happy Father’s Day.” I also said, “Hope you like the card we sent.”
It’s not unusual to get no response after a call like this, but I was curious about the card and and the photos I sent. I emailed a few days later and asked if he’d liked the card. His wife (#3) replied that they had not received it yet, so I made inquiries with the delivery service. The tracking data said it had indeed been delivered on the expected day. After a volley of emails back and forth with his wife, I realized it had been delivered to an address they had moved from over 4 years ago. A few more phone calls to the Express Mail people and I was informed that it was circling somewhere in California, and would likely, one day, be returned to me. Weeks later and no one has seen or heard from it, but I continue to get tracking data showing it was rejected at the incorrect address a couple of times.
Does the universe communicate in metaphors? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making it all up, but this one sure lines up that way. I don’t know how long this card will float around in the postal system, but it feels like another failed attempt to reach him. I’ve done everything I can with the tracking info to correct the delivery address or have it returned to me and two months later, neither has occurred.
A couple years ago, my father’s wife revealed he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years prior. While we were shocked to learn this 3 years late, we were equally taken aback by the fact that we hadn’t noticed. He’s been absent for so long. Even in person, he was usually absent. We don’t contact him very often except to send a photo of his grandson, or the phone call on odd holidays or his birthday. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times he has called or written to me/us the past 4 decades. So it was ironic and surreal we didn’t notice the gradual dementia that pulled him even farther away.
As anyone who has someone with dementia in their lives realizes, it’s too late for change. The person who might have transformed and reached out and tried to heal what is broken is gone. History simply is what it is and our acceptance that it’s over, however premature, is the key to our health and inner peace.
Jack Kornfield writes, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”
I think I’m getting there. I’m not sure if forgiveness is what I’ll find, but dementia demands that I give up all hope of a better past.
On Father’s Day, I am inspired when I look in my son’s bright, blue eyes. I know I have a great responsibility to end the legacy of a failed father/son relationship. I am committed to making that happen. I am committed to growing myself and our relationship because our connection is more important than being right.
I can do this.
As the narrative implies, I had intended to post this a few weeks after Father’s Day. It’s been a tangled piece to write and the delays rolled into Autumn, allowing a perfect piece of mail to arrive. I enclose a picture for your perusal.