Patrick Caneday didn’t know what he was missing, growing up without a father around, until he became a father, himself.
I was two when he left.
When I became a father and my daughter turned two, I looked at her and tried hard to imagine how it would feel to walk away from her. I tried to see if I could fool myself into such a place just to know what he might have been feeling when he left us, how he could justify it. But I couldn’t. It was like getting too close to fire.
Like so many children of divorced parents, the childhood memories I have of my father are a patchwork of contractually obligated visits—one weekend per month, two weeks in the summer, a phone call on holidays or birthdays. If he remembered. Vignettes in which I was to suck the marrow of the father-son relationship as quickly as possible before returning to the protective wings of a mother hen.
I loved visiting my father, even though he was half-stranger, half-parent. He and his new wife moved around and the farther they went, the less frequent were our visits. I suspect that was on purpose. But my favorite place to see him was Catalina Island, 26 miles across the sea from Los Angeles. I’d take the seaplane over from San Pedro, and the pilot would let me sit in the cockpit and watch the ocean rise to meet us as we descended into Avalon.
One day walking up the hill to his house, he stopped, looked over a fence and whistled down into the darkness of a eucalyptus shaded valley. He whistled a short, pretty call, and from nowhere came the response. An unseen myna bird sang back, note for note, mysterious, pure and comforting. He smiled and we walked on.
I tried to get that myna bird to whistle back to me every time I walked up that hill. And I don’t recall ever hearing its song back.
As the youngest of four siblings I was the lucky one. With no real memorable experiences with my father before the divorce, I didn’t know I was missing anything. You don’t crave candy if you don’t know what it tastes like. I thought it was odd when the fathers of other kids showed up to Cub Scout events, to tee-ball and football games. I thought every boy learned how to play catch with his mom.
When my father discovered that I liked camping, fishing and the outdoors like him, he did his best to teach me all he knew of these things in our brief visits. It’s these moments in our shared passion that I remember most fondly. How to pitch a tent, start a campfire, tie a fishing knot or dress a freshly caught trout. He taught me the peace of nature, and every lake became our Walden.
Summer visits to his house were both reassuring and awkward. I was so glad to see my father, yet the familiarity he had with his new family made me feel like an outsider. I loved them, but I couldn’t wait to hit the road and have my father to myself. In the silence of our long drives through the California back country I’d wonder who this man was in the driver’s seat. And what did he know about me? Not my friends or about that kid picking on me at school, nor about the girl I had a silent crush on. He had no idea that I felt like I was pretending to be a teenager, nor how I dreaded school because I felt like a misfit, so alone. If I opened my heart to the father, would the stranger answer?
By my late teens the contractual visits expired and we saw each other far less. There would be long stretches with no contact. But I always knew he was out there somewhere, and I thought of him from time to time.
One day when I was about 20 years old and going through a rebellious stage—mild by most standards—I told my mother I’d go back to college when I was doing it for myself, not for her or anyone else. “You sound just like your father when you say that,” she scolded. And though I know I was right, I was dumbfounded. I had no idea I was anything like him.
Then I started to see it too, in the way I stood or hooked my finger in my belt loop. I heard his voice in mine when I laughed or became angry. I had cravings for smoked oysters on a Ritz cracker with a little mayo—his favorite camping appetizer.
Getting to know the man started with a casual phone call for no real reason, just catching up. The occasional letter. As his second set of children grew and demanded less of his time, we would plan to meet up in Flagstaff or Monterey while on the long, solitary road trips we both loved so much. Just the two of us, at last.
As adults, with the labor intensive part of growing up and parenting behind us, we started our relationship anew. A son needs a father. But maybe a father needs a son just as much. It’s never too late to tend the old wounds, though scars remain.
I could judge him. As a parent myself now, his mistakes and shortcomings are so much clearer to me. I have moments of reflection when a lonely child’s righteous anger wells up within me. These usually come when I’m amazed by my own children and so thankful I was present to witness their great triumph or funny dance; to pick them up when they fall and wipe a tear from their cheek. Moments no father should miss. Moments he and I never had.
When I looked into my two year olds eyes and tried to imagine walking away from her I shuddered, as if trying to wake from a bad dream; pierced by a guilt of such profound depth. It’s a pain I’m sure never goes away.
Silent ripples through time. That’s what our actions are. And we have no idea the myriad ways our actions will impact those closest to us. His absence in my childhood ripples through my life to this day, sometimes more than his presence did and still does.
At his 80th birthday party not long ago, I was coaxed into making an impromptu speech by a bunch of people that all knew my father better than I did. I rambled through a few sentiments telling him how much I loved him, and how life is a very rocky road. I finished by saying that I learned a lot from him, that I was a better man because of him. Comments steeped in double-meaning.
And he replied, “No, son. I am a better man because of you.”
I’m still that kid whistling into the darkness, and am convinced that I always will be. The song I yearn to hear back is one of approval and acceptance from a father I’ll never really know. But I keep whistling, and sometimes, from that valley of the shadow, a faint call comes back.
He’s not a perfect father. But I’m not a perfect son. We’ve just lost so much time. Too many fatherless Father’s Days.
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