Being a Son, Being a Father

As I write this, it’s Father’s Day. I wish a Happy Father’s Day to every decent person who identifies as a father figure in somebody’s life, be it as a parent, a teacher, a mentor, or a caregiver. This article is dedicated to you.

This is the ninth Father’s Day I have been a fatherless son, and the ninth Father’s Day I have been my son’s father.

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I have not always liked Father’s Day. My parents divorced when I was a tween, and I spent several years blaming my father. A lot of this was because of my mother’s gaslighting, but my father wasn’t perfect, either. He had a short and fiery temper, like his father before him, and like his three sons.

When I was young, I looked up to my father. At 6’4” and heavy set, he was larger than life; years later, he would brag of the children in China following him around to pat his Buddha’s belly.

He was a minister, and one of my fondest memories was setting up for Easter Sunrise Service on the bank of the St. Clair River in Marine City. At home, he was the studious and hardworking, splitting his time between his office and his workshop. At work, he was the center of attention, father to his congregation.

My relationship with my father had begun to decay well before the divorce, though. I hated my sixth-grade teacher, mostly because she’d been a mid-year replacement for another teacher that I’d loved. One day, crying and angry at her, I said I was glad she wouldn’t be my teacher the next year since we were moving away.

This was supposed to be a secret because my father hadn’t told his congregation yet. When my father found out, he was furious with me. Protocol was so important to him. That was the day I learned that his congregation came before his family, and it crushed me.

So when my parents divorced, I went to live with my mother. She had done an independent job convincing me that my father was a terrible person, although it wasn’t that difficult to persuade me at that point in my life.

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My father was a product of his era. He was emotionally aloof because that was what manhood entailed. When he felt bad, he got angry because that was the emotion he was allowed to have.

I remember hearing him cry once, shortly before my parents divorced. My parents had had yet another an argument. They thought we were asleep, although I’m not sure how they thought we could sleep through that noise.

In the wake of the argument, with my mother gone somewhere else, I heard my father crying at the bottom of the steps. I felt connected with him, I felt like he was real, but I knew that he would never acknowledge that it had happened.

I spent the next few decades of my life with a civil but emotionally distant relationship with him. I saw him dutifully at Christmas and a few other times a year; he called me on my birthday, but more often got my answering machine than me myself. “They have a parade on your birthday!” he’d say on the message. Because I was born on March Fourth.

Dad jokes.

When I was a child, one of my father’s favorite songs had been Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle,” released when I was six. I think my father worried about his own emotionally distant relationship with his father, and how he didn’t want to repeat it with his own sons.

But repeat it he did, at least with me.

I’d been struggling with motivating myself to improve my relationship with him for several years. My older brother, who lives in western Canada and whom I’ve seen only a handful of times in the last few decades, was coming in to Michigan for a visit with his then-fiancée. Perhaps I could finally find a way to reopen channels of communication with both of them.

A week before that visit, my brother called to tell me our father had died of a heart attack.

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My father had three sons of his own, as well as two stepchildren from his second marriage. At the time of his death, his only grandchildren were my stepsister’s two sons.

My older brother married after the funeral, and became stepfather to a son and a daughter. I’ve met his children twice: Once at the funeral, and again at the church’s annual memorial service for lost clergy.
My younger brother and his wife adopted three wonderful children shortly after my father’s death. They live only about an hour away from us, and yet we struggle with finding times to get together.

This is the toxic effect of not teaching men how to maintain relationships or deal with their emotions. I don’t know how to reach out to fix bridges. I saw it in my relationship with my father, and I see it in my relationships with my brothers.

I grew up thinking that Father’s Day was a day for platitudes, ties, and power tools. But that’s not fatherhood. Fatherhood is finding a way to overcome the nonsense that has been programmed into us men in order to be the best fathers we can be.
My brothers are both great fathers.

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My son was conceived within a few weeks of my father’s death. In a year’s cycle, I went from being a son with a tenuous relationship with his father to being a father with a chance to break the cycle.
For Father’s Day this year, my son gave me a toy motorcycle shaped like a leopard. He apologized that it wasn’t a cheetah, my favorite animal, but he hoped it would be close enough. He also gave me a card he’d made at school where he’d filled in the blanks. For “My dad’s superpower is…” he wrote “everything.” For “I love Dad more than…” he word “anything.”

I have my father’s temper. I have my father’s social anxiety. I refuse to have my father’s emotional distance. At nine, my son trusts me just as I trusted my father.

As a teacher, I have had students whose fathers are caring, and I have had students whose fathers who are absent, or abusive, or uncaring. I have seen teenage boys acting as father figures for their younger siblings, and grandfathers and uncles stepping in to fill in holes. And I have seen
youth struggling without any father figure in their life at all.

All you fathers out there, regardless of who your children are, remember: It’s on you, it’s on us, to make sure the next generation of males have a chance to be the best they can be.

So I hope you enjoy your ties and your power tools, but, just as you might advise a child during baseball practice, make sure to keep your eye on the ball.

And Dad? I miss you.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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