I’m sitting here, the day before Father’s Day feeling a mix of resentment and grief. Deep inside, far away from those who rely on me to be strong, Father’s Day feels like a trap. I can accept that I’m granted a day to celebrate my being a father, but honoring my relationship to fatherhood is a complex thing. How do we honor fathers, caught as we are between the bright simple narratives that fatherhood assigns to us and the lives we actually live, as boys, as men, as husbands as fathers?
I didn’t sit down today specifically to write a request for forgiveness. The need to write welled up in me because I have to make my way through these feelings. To talk out some part of this.
There is no part of Father’s Day that allows for grieving, or processing failure, or despair. No part that acknowledges what it feels like to look into your own child’s eyes and not have today’s answers. When every narrative is bent on celebrating the sanctity of our role and our commitment to it, it overrides the other ways we might acknowledge Father’s Day. For fathers like me, being celebrated in this way can be exhausting. Tears well up and a shadow crosses smiling faces. Why am I ruining this? Indeed.
My father died two years ago. His passing haunts me. His voice raspy, his eyes swimming with calm courage. I, sitting beside him as the cool water moved up the straw, agonizingly slowly, to his sweet parched lips and down to where? Would that I could kiss his sweet lips now, burnt and scarred by his failing body. Hold him to me. Embrace what was changing inside of him, with each passing hour. To provide the comfort of a mother to a child, to provide something real beyond holding the cup only, respecting the rules of the dying that in turn respects every rule ever laid down between a father and a son about allowing space instead of fixing things. Instead of fixing what can not be fixed.
As his spirit grew quiet and his body failed. He took my feet, I have the photo. He rubbed my feet on his deathbed. The kindness in his eyes saying, its not so bad. Its not so bad.
In the first weeks after his passing, I felt that having gone to him helped. That being with him in the last months of his life, that each successive ambulance crying through the night, would pay off a lifetime of sometimes disjointed connection, cementing our love. It did, but it did not. For me, there is something about remembering the hammer blows of emergency room trips, the raw impotence in the face of death. It provokes the rigidity of the cruel judgements we heap on ourselves. What I might have done. What I should have done.
On Father’s Day, I can’t stop cycling through thoughts of my father’s forgiveness. Whether for himself or me, I’m not certain. I’m aware of my failures as a son, lifted into his arms as he held me, as he holds me still. I suppose I set aside his catalogue of failings because it insures I can stay in the familiar place of withholding forgiveness from myself. There has been no balancing of the scales yet between his life and mine. For reasons unclear to me, I can not yet permit it. I have tried. But the grief keeps coming back. And I want to punish myself. I didn’t connect enough. I wasn’t there entirely; my eyes wandering to my phone. And toward the end, some part of me, the hanged man’s conspirator, in the wee hours of the morning, wishing it would be over.
The weakest part of me wants to say I missed it. Like a miss everything. Of course I did not. Of course, I did not. But the wounds we inflict on ourselves can be so comforting and familiar. And where do we process those?
I realize now there are questions I would ask him if I could. Intuition tells me I would ask them of the man he became as he was dying. The work that dying people do, is outside the scope of our understanding. They put things to rest in the long silent hours of thought, while we watch as spectators only. Seeing the slow changes. Sensing the visitations we can not see; the muttered conversations we are not party to.
But if I could, I would ask him how did he forgive his own failings? Did his stepfather’s fist crashing over and over into his jaw in the depths of the Great Depression clear the slate for him right out of the gates? How did that work for him? How are we as men to possibly hold the history of ourselves and our families? Show me how, father. I need to know how.
And so, as Father’s Day looms, I know that to do anything other than celebrate would be selfishness. But so many come to that table. My father and his. My child, my loving wife, my ex, my failed friendships and lost acquaintances, memories of past and present, successes and failures, all dragged to this cheerful Hallmark card celebration.
Of course, I’ll try to perk up and cheerfully engage the day. But I remain committed to the idea that some way, somehow, for men, for fathers, something very different is also needed. Somehow, we need a day when we can be more human. We need a way to ask forgiveness for our tempers and our exhaustion and our fears and our loss. Somehow, that version of Father’s Day is missing.
To have my family tell me I’m a good dad is important to me, yes. But what I also need is some form of forgiveness to help me bridge the vast expanse between what fathers are supposed to be and what we actually are.
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