It’s Father’s Day today, and the media is surrounding us with a blizzard of stories about dads. Some are nostalgic, some are tragic, most are inspiring in one way or another. Each of them tries, in some small way, to tell the story of how a simple biological relationship can (in ideal circumstances) morph into an incredibly complex emotional relationship.
Father’s Day is often difficult for me. My father died when I was 3 and I never got a chance to meet the man who gave me life; I never got a chance to look him in the eye, shake his hand and say “thank you” for who I am. That’s something that so many people take for granted, so many people don’t even take the time to do that simple thing that I would give nearly anything in the world to be able to do. Instead, I’ve lived my entire life with a ghost. My entire life has been a quest for the approval of a father figure and a deep-seated hunger for a dad to help me through some of the rougher patches of life. This hunger has affected me deeply, has shaped my personality and my responses to many of life’s difficult situations. It has impacted my relationships with women, my relationships with other men, and my relationships with friends and family.
In many ways, I guess I could consider myself lucky. You see, I had the best father in the world. I had a father built up entirely in my imagination. I had a father who loved my mother deeply, who loved his friends freely, yet wasn’t afraid to be a man when the times required it. I have spent my entire life so far eagerly soaking up stories from all who knew him. No detail of my father’s life or personality was too small or too insignificant. Like a bird, I would eagerly grab bits of string and shiny things and drag them home to build my nest, my comfort, my image of my father.
I don’t know at what age most people begin to consciously remember things. I do know that one of my very first conscious memories was the day they came to our door to tell my mother that my dad wasn’t coming home from Vietnam. I don’t remember specific details, but I remember uniformed men standing at the door, I remember my mom crying and I remember this crushing weight of responsibility crashing down on my tiny shoulders. I remember feeling the overwhelming need to take care of and protect my mother, no mean feat for a three year old boy. To be honest, I don’t really remember a feeling of loss surrounding my father nearly as much as I remember the feeling of responsibility and my mother’s grief washing over me in a slow ponderous wave.
My mother has been a dutiful widow. No person could ever hope for as much devotion as my mother has given my father, even in death. My father’s grave never goes undecorated and he’s never very far from her thoughts. She has gone out of her way to make sure he was a real person to me, shared details of their relationship, who he was and why she loved him so.
Even in death my father continues to take care of her, thanks to a government pension check she receives like clockwork every month. He can no longer hold her, he can no longer kiss her tears away but at least she doesn’t have to struggle quite so hard to maintain the bare necessities of life. It’s no substitute for him but it does help in other ways. Some people have given my mother grief over her 35 years of steady pension checks, as if in some way any amount of money can make up for the loss of a husband, a confidante, a friend and the father of her child. I hope those people never have the opportunity to truly understand the pain behind their words, I hope they never have to experience the loss. In some ways, those checks themselves have helped color my ideas of responsibility; the belief that we should always take care of those we love even after we are long gone. Even in the way of his death my father taught me another important life lesson.
It has always been odd for me to visit my father’s grave; his name is the same as mine and as a child it was very disturbing to see my own name engraved on a simple Navy gravestone, worn and weathered from the Kansas winds and my mother’s tears. Sometimes it was a chore for me to visit this cold monument to a man who I never knew, yet who gave me life and who, if stories are true, loved me deeply and fiercely. Other times it was a comfort, giving me a chance to show respect in one of the few ways left to me. Even though I never knew my father, he has been with me throughout my life. He exists in my thoughts, in my conscience, in my secret fears and my public dreams. I’ve often asked myself “would Dad be proud of me” when I’ve done something worthy. I’ve used him as a measuring stick, gauging my own decisions on what I thought he might or might not approve of. My dad was the hero of every cowboy story I ever read, the cop to every robber, and the ultimate authority on everything from girls to cars to how to tie a tie. I even shared the same military service as my father, serving a tour of duty in the Navy that he loved. I like to think that by sharing this experience, I have a slightly more accurate image of him in my mind than I would have without having done so.
No flesh and blood father could compete with the father I had. Invariably, if my father had lived to see me grow into a man he would have fallen short of my ideal in some cases, and far surpassed them in others. I was cheated out of getting to know the man who gave me life, but I’d like to think I’ve managed to find the silver lining in the clouds and I hope someday to be the father to my son that my father never got the chance to be to me. I hope, someday, to make him as proud of me as I always have been of him.