After a crisis allowed him to see beyond his traditional masculinity, their father-daughter relationship grew stronger . . . at least for a little while.
Fathers Day 1987 was my first without my father. That was the first year I didn’t need to buy a gift he’d never use or find a card that glossed over our strained relationship. That year I was off the hook, although I felt no relief.
Seven months prior, I was in study hall formulating a plan to persuade my parents to let me go out after Friday’s football game. My father felt that home was the best place for his 14-year-old daughter on a Friday night. I was hopeful Mom could sway him. When Principal Leber tapped me on the shoulder, I assumed he was prodding me back towards my homework. Instead, he whispered, “Come with me. You need to get to the hospital. Your brother is waiting for you in the parking lot.” Seeing the look of confusion on my face he added, “It’s your dad.”
My dad? I had just seen him at breakfast. I gathered my things and met my older brother at his truck. “What the heck is going on?” I asked. “Shut-up,” He snarled. We struggled with the need for silence and our fear of it. The silence filled the truck’s cab for moments before it became too intimidating. “Maybe he had an accident at work,” my brother suggested. I retorted, “What kind of accident can you have driving a cement truck?”
Our father had been a farmer his entire life until the Farm Crisis took away his career along with our home. We were in the process of “starting over” and it wasn’t going well. “I don’t know. What else could it be?” He gripped the wheel and sped towards the tiny rural hospital across town. Many things ran through my head during that drive but the thought of becoming a fatherless daughter was not one of them.
At 35, my father was diagnosed with “WPW” or Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. It is a congenital heart defect in which the normal electric patterns of the heart are disrupted. It affects young men more than women or older men. Sudden cardiac death is rare in patients with WPW but may occur due to arrhythmia or inappropriate drugs for the management of arrhythmia. Dad received inappropriate drug treatment and was dead at age 37, leaving behind his wife and three kids.
While the months leading up to his death were probably the most difficult of his life, they were some of the best times of our relationship. My father had always worked in a male-dominated field, came from a family of only brothers, and of his three children, I was the only girl. This traditionally-masculine background combined with an absence of father-daughter role models made relating to a daughter more difficult than he had anticipated. The more stereotypically feminine my interests, the further from me he withdrew.
Even as a young child, I longed to be a “daddy’s girl” as my friends were to their fathers. My father would have none of it. In his mind, my brothers were his and I was my mother’s and any attempt on my part to change that alignment strained and damaged our relationship further.
Then, he lost everything. He was stripped of his career and in turn, his dignity. His masculine profession was crumbling and everything he knew was shaken. Changing logistics due to Mom returning to work dictated he and I would spend more time together.
I don’t know if it was time or age or our stability crumbling away, but the year I turned 14, we finally began to develop a healthier relationship. We’d always looked alike and we came to realize we shared the same wit and temperament. Dad and I loved to crack jokes at the expense of anyone within our line of sight. We found ourselves hilarious and together, we were. He didn’t understand the arts but decided to make an effort on my behalf. In turn, I didn’t understand cattle but decided to make an honest effort for him.
I had waited my entire life for this relationship with my father and after mere months of having it, he was gone. I would be forever left with a juxtaposition of fathers in my head: the distant one I had for most of my memory of him, and the supportive one I had ever-so-briefly, who left me.
For years, Fathers Day left me feeling fatherless. I felt like the kid who didn’t get invited to the party so, in turn, I chose to disregard the party. My mother remarried shortly after Dad’s death and for those with a dead parent and a step-parent replacement, celebrating one over the other creates guilt and confusion.
It would be more than 20 years before I would celebrate Fathers Day again. Twenty-two years later—when I had my first son—I needed to change my attitude. My husband deserved the same outpouring of love and appreciation from our kids that I got on Mothers’ Day.
The heartache and turmoil I’ve experienced regarding my father have radically shaped my parenting. Surviving the sudden death of a parent taught me the power of resilience, one of the most important characteristics we encourage in our sons. Losing my father unexpectedly gave me a first-hand understanding of the fragility of life and the importance of being present in every moment, something I work to pass on to my boys.
I’ve learned from my relationship with my father the importance of pushing through my own gender barriers to connect with my sons, and the need to foster relationships between my sons and their father as well as their relationships with me. Most of all, I strive to connect with them because in that brief time Dad made his attempt to connect with me, our father-daughter relationship began to develop.
I still spend a lot of time thinking about Dad around Father’s Day but I now view the day as a parent rather than as a fatherless child. I want my kids to understand that having a father in their life is a privilege not given to all, and while dads might not always get it right, they are always trying their best.
Read more about Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome here. Seek professional medical attention if you think you have WPW or any health concern.
Photo Credit: Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture