Since he grew up without a father, Jamie was uncertain who he was as one. His daughter showed him. Here;s how.
One weekend day in early March, I was playing with my three-year-old daughter. We started singing “The Wheels on the Bus”, and went through several verses, the babies on the bus going “Wah, wah wah” and the mommies on the bus going “hush, hush, hush”.
“Daddies on the bus?” my daughter asked.
There is no verse in the song about daddies on the bus. Apparently they don’t take public transportation. So I decided to improvise.
I asked her, “Okay. What do the daddies on the bus do?”
Without pausing, she looked at me and said, “The daddies say ‘love’.”
So we both sang, “The daddies on the bus say ‘love, love, love’, but I had to fight back tears.
I realized, in my daughter’s world, that is what daddies do. They love you. That is her world. Her world is so far removed from the world I grew up in; daddies were as absent from my world as they are from the bus in the original song.
The last thing I would have ever associated ‘daddy’ with was ‘love’.
As a child, the words “father”, “dad” or “daddy”, instilled, if anything, vague feelings of shame, embarrassment and anger. My journey to fatherhood has been a quest, in a way, to claim that title for myself, a slow journey through the darkness with few if any guideposts along the way.
I never knew my biological father. He left the day after my mother told him she was pregnant. That day, he promised her he would never leave her, that they’d be a family together. She came back the next day to find his apartment empty, and she never saw him again.
It seemed as though my father spent the rest of his life hiding from me, and from paying child support, even going so far as to fake his own death once when I was 11. When, at 24, I discovered he had died five years previous, I didn’t take it for fact until I held a copy of his death certificate.
I grew up feeling different. All of my friends, all of my classmates, had fathers who loved them, and whom they looked up to, and I was ashamed.
I learned early not to talk about my father, or came up with lies when other kids asked. His absence hung over me like a dark shadow, a void that would never be filled.
There were so many things I never learned, things boys traditionally learn from their dads. Stuff about cars, and sports, and even using a public urinal.
I remember “Return of the Jedi” angered me – why did Luke Skywalker think he could bring Darth Vader back from the Dark Side, just because he was his son? Maybe I was a bit jealous – my father never turned away from the Dark Side for me.
When I was 15, I acquired a stepfather, and a year later I had a sister.
I remember the first time I held my sister, in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care. I was filled with love as I looked down at her. The words formed in my mind: This is my sister. My sister. But one day, it will be my daughter I hold.
My relationship with my stepfather was rocky, at best, but watching him with my sister, I began to get some idea of what a father was like, and although I knew I would never have one, the seed was planted in my mind that I might one day be one.
But the idea still filled me with fear. What do I know about being a father? I thought to myself. And there was that shadow, always hanging over me, the association of the word “father” with shame, with anger.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I had children so late – my daughter was born when I was 38. My wife and I had been married for eight years, and had been a couple for a decade before that.
When I was 33, my stepfather was diagnosed with cancer. It served as impetus for us both to clear away the walls that had developed between us.
He told me he considered me his son, in his heart.
“I will try to call you dad,” I told him. “Forgive me if I don’t always succeed, because I find it hard to say that word.”
I didn’t have long to practice. The cancer progressed quickly, and he died seven months later.
Three and a half years after his death, my wife was pregnant. The entire pregnancy I fretted. What would my role be? How would I know what to do? Am I really okay with being a “father”? Can’t I be a co-parent?
The day my daughter was born, and the next few days that followed, went by like a blur, mostly due to lack of sleep.
The first night, my daughter would not sleep unless she was being held. So I spent the whole first night holding her in the rocking chair.
It was around 3, maybe 4 a.m., that something strange happened. It felt as though time had looped back on itself, as though I was there, but at the same time I was also 16 years old and holding my sister for the first time. I felt linked to that day, and the words came unbidden to my mind: Now it is my daughter I’m holding.
My daughter. That was when it hit me. I am a father. I looked down at the tiny, helpless infant, sleeping peacefully in my arms, who wailed every time I tried to put her in her bassinet. I am a father, and I’m okay with that.
In time I’ve come to see fatherhood as an awesome, amazing and very difficult job. It’s not a job everyone can, or should, do.
I’ve learned there are worse things than not having a father. One of my best friends, whom I used to secretly envy for having a father, revealed that he had been physically, emotionally and sexually abused by the man.
It made me think; with his mile-long rap sheet, perhaps the best thing my father could have done was stay away. What my wanting my father to be in my life atually meant was that I wanted my father to have been a different person, a better person than he was.
I may never truly forgive him for not being a better person. That’s okay too.
But my anger at my father has gradually given way to pity. He may have been my father, but he was never a daddy.
You see, my daughter has shown me a new world. A world where “daddy” is synonymous with “love”.
That is the world I choose to live in.
Photo: Flickr/Amy Selleck