My First Father’s Day Without My Father
Today (well, technically yesterday) is a complicated day for some people. It’s Father’s Day. For many, it’s a day to watch something fun on TV with their dads. For others, it’s resentment that they did not know their dads, or indeed wish that they did not know them. For others still, it’s a time of great loss.
A colleague & friend lost her husband to cancer a day earlier. I hope their kids learn to see future Father’s Days as an opportunity to celebrate his memory, and not just to re-live the loss. I can’t stop thinking about them.
For me, this is my very first Father’s Day without my father, who died last summer. I was not there to celebrate it with him, as I live in another city and the pandemic prevented my physical presence. But my brother texted me to remind me that just a year ago, he and our other brother were toasting with my father in recognition of the joys of still having our beloved patriarch with us. A few weeks later, he would be suddenly dead.
You never know when something or someone you love will be snatched from you. Each celebration might be the last. So cherish each one. Immerse yourself in it. Don’t tell yourself there will be time later to fully commit to the moment. Because one time there won’t be.
I had had exactly two Father’s Days in which I had both my son and my father. It’s an experience that I cherish. And I had the privilege to tell my father that fact one day over a video call– that I was so thrilled to be a father who still had his own father. Let me tell you, I wanted so much for us to be “fathers together”, reveling in that last shared experience that had heretofore been denied us.
At the time of that call, my father was already struggling with both dementia and heavily impaired hearing, so it was very difficult communicating with him, especially on matters of emotional importance and especially over a video chat. He joked a little and sidestepped my comment. So I repeated it. He became serious for a moment and said, “I know. I know what you’re saying.” I didn’t expect that utterance to be so meaningful for me. I consider it a gift that he had grasped deep clarity and lucidity in that moment, especially since weeks later he would not immediately recognize me or his grandson during our final video chat.
While I’m understandably remorseful that I’ve been robbed of further years of sharing fatherhood with my own perfect progenitor, I prefer to be grateful for the two years that were given to us.
In his honour, today I wore the final piece of clothing he ever purchased for himself –a Canada t-shirt. I wear it sparingly, as I want it to last some more years. And I had not intended to, but I also found myself wearing his sunglasses, too, which I rarely take out, since I am prone to losing or damaging glasses:
In my immediate family, I am the only father, as none of my siblings have procreated. The only sire. I am now the sole recipient of all the Father’s Day cards, calls, and emails. It feels strange, but somehow right. Below is what my kid gave me today. Yes, I know it was his mother who quickly had it printed out on her computer. But I appreciate it nonetheless:
Among the many things we did together today, we attempted to nap in the same bed. He insists that I play him videos of himself on my phone (because he’s a 2-year old narcissist), followed by reading a book or two, followed by him putting his head on my chest and telling me exactly what to sing to him about. This is pretty much a daily ritual now, and I can’t believe that this is what my life has become in my mid 50s. It’s not what I expected.
And I love it. I kiss him and hug him and tell him I love him every ten minutes. He’s thoroughly sick of it. Because I do it so often, I’m now convinced that I’ve had more same-sex kisses than opposite-sex ones.
Because I work from home, I have had the privilege of being with my son 24/7 since the day he was born. This is a joy that was denied my own father, and so many fathers before him. But I have claimed it because I am fortunate to be sufficiently senior in my profession that I can afford some flexibility.
There are indeed many advantages to being an older first-time parent. (Lots of disadvantages, too; but those are obvious.) One advantage that might surprise you is perspective. I suspect that if I had taken the traditional path and had squeezed out a young’un in my 20s or 30s, my expectations for the scion would be extraordinary. At my age, though, I fully understand that he will be whoever he will be, regardless of my fantasies. It’s not my job to determine his future. It’s only my job to give him the necessities of life, to fill him with love, and to make sure he’s not a dick.
Whatever he does with his life, so long as it’s from a place of love and compassion, and so long as he seeks some form of personal fulfillment, I will be 100% content with.
I mention this because (a) it’s a nice thing I want to remember, and (b) it’s relevant for my greater point, which is that because I am a father without a father, I suddenly find myself in the role of elder.
You know what I mean.
I had a lovely chat with one of my graduate students about this. She pointed out that the world has a crisis of eldering. It’s not clear who ascends to that role, or how to imbue them with the respect they once had. We are a global culture of wayward youth, even we older folks. After millennia of every culture having relied to some extent on the guidance of elders, we are the first to reject them mostly outright. And so we flail.
I also want to bring up this quote from one of Robert Heinlein’s books:
It’s the sort of obvious wisdom our elders used to inculcate within us, along with, “Sticks and stones might break my bones…” Somewhere, somehow, simple guidance like this has been cast aside. These are not controversial sentiments embodying a particular political position. Rather, they are among the simple rules for living with maximal collegiality and minimal mental stress.
It reminds me of something my father used to tell us endlessly… that the rarest and yet most important virtue in life was “common sense”. At the time, I thought he meant everyday pennies (this is true), so I meditated on the words for years. And now I think I’m convinced that this is the Achilles heel of our modern life: a simple yet tragic deficit of common sense.
That’s where I am today, on this, my first Father’s Day without my own father: contemplating elderness and common sense. There are worse things to be doing.