I was five or six when my father walked out for the last time, so if there was any observation of Father’s Day in our home while he was around, I certainly don’t recall it. After he was gone, it was my mother who was honored on Father’s Day, an appreciative nod to her expanded parental duties. Some twenty years later, having finally reconnected with my father, I learned that even when present, he was mostly absent. Or perhaps he was more like a human black hole, sucking all the emotional energy from those unfortunate enough to get caught in his torpid gravitational pull. “I was never really comfortable around children,” this father of five sons once told me with no hint of irony or discomfort, the way you might tell someone baked beans give you gas. And I’m sure it was true. He never paid much attention to us.
I realize that many men of my never-fully-formed father’s generation suffer from emotional constipation, but he was not only incapable of expressing emotion; he seemed to lack the capacity to feel. Oh yes, there were historical explanations for my father’s detachment, and I’m not unsympathetic, but don’t parents and aspiring parents have a responsibility to get past their own childhood traumas, to break the mold that broke them? Perhaps that’s a lot to expect, but if a child, your own child, isn’t worth the struggle, I can’t imagine what is.
With a cardboard cutout father and a mother who had her own demons to battle and scars to pass on, I was by no means an ideal candidate for parenthood. And although I came to believe, in my most optimistic moments, that I had the potential, perhaps even the instincts to be a good parent, I was aware of the dangers, nearly immobilized for a time by the knowledge that nothing I did would be as consequential, as impactful, as potentially damaging as raising a child. Eventually I overcame or ignored those concerns.
I know it doesn’t need to be stated, but I am far from a perfect parent, and certainly not impervious to my history, my genes, the various atmospheric elements that whittle and mold us, and though I try, though I think about it virtually every day, I’m not always successful in my efforts to shield my son from the emotional shrapnel that, like space debris, continues to orbit me. But unlike my father, a victim of his own experience and a product of his own time, I do make the effort.
Before I became a parent I had little interest in holidays, and the truth is I could still let them pass without notice. But I have come to understand the desire to celebrate the bond between a man and his child, and I know that when my son wishes me a happy Father’s Day there’s more to it than a card and a kiss. The love we share is expressed every day, and though he may question many things, I don’t believe he’ll ever doubt his father’s love, affection, appreciation, and respect. If he does, and if I’m still here, I’ll do everything I can to reassure him, not because I’m such a wonderful father, but because I love him enough to be the father he deserves, and to protect him, even if what I’m protecting him from is some damaged part of me.