Hallmark Cards would have us believe that all fathers are wonderful and perfect.
In the complex, raw, distressing world of reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
As we approach Father’s Day, I face mixed feelings about embracing the holiday that requires us to honor the one who was helpful in bringing us into the world.
My friend Lainey is seeing her father out. He is in hospice. It’s a painful time. Those of us who are Baby Boomers, with parents in their final years, are in many ways saying goodbye, whether their folks are slipping into dementia or death. My stable owner Andrea has her father, who is fed through a tube and cannot talk, living in her home.
Others face this holiday, as I do, with memories. My dad passed years ago.
I Can’t Do This Anymore
One of my most poignant memories comes from a summer day in the Seventies. My father was outside trying to change a tire on the big fifth-wheel camper he’d bought so that he and my mother could go tooling around the country.
As I walked outside, I noticed my father was squatting down next to the tire, head in his hands.
His shoulders were shaking.
My father was crying.
When he realized that I was staring at him (I’m sure shock was registered on my young face) he explained:
“I don’t have the strength to do this any more.”
My dad, a lifelong, three-pack-a-day smoker, had not taken care of his body. Once a fine specimen of a man, he had wrecked himself through his bad habits. Now his muscles and lungs had weakened, age had crept up on him. He wasn’t even able to change a tire.
He was devastated.
It’s Their Job
My partner’s father, in an incomprehensible fit of pique, once threw out a collection of prized bodybuilding trophies, the demonstrable proof of years of sweat and toil and heartache of a young man through college and his early twenties. No justifiable reason.
That hurt. The gesture was exquisitely painful.
Our fathers fail us, flail us physically and emotionally and mark us for life forever. And yet. And yet. When we take into account the whole of their heartfelt effort, and the genuine value of what appear to be faults, it is the sum of those very things that sculpt us- or at least have the potential to sculpt us- into who we are to become.
In many cases these men are simply, unknowingly cascading down to us the damage done to them by their own fathers. The truly courageous see this, and the buck stops right there. Most are too young to be that self-aware. However no matter how troubling or passive or non-responsive (or a no-show entirely) a father may have been, they all come bearing gifts.
Without my Dad I’d have never become a prize-winning writer. Nor would I have been so deeply motivated to be the athlete I am today. My dad put me on a horse at the age of four and required that I work just as hard as my brother on the farm. Such gender-neutral treatment back in the 50s and 60s was rare and it bore terrific fruit. There’s no way I’d be doing adventure travel today if not for my father. But by the same token, his poor choices were also highly instructive.
The image of my once-powerful dad reduced to a shivering, broken man squatting next to his pickup truck in tears is permanently seared into my mind’s eye.
Poor choices. Choices I learned never to make.
Do As I Say
Fathers are great teachers. My dad admonished my brother and me not to drink or smoke, while he had a Marlboro hanging out of one corner of his mouth and a highball in his right hand.
My brother smoked and drank his whole life. I smoked for three years, quit at 19. Never drank. The lessons stuck.
He also left me with a love for classical music, good books, international travel, a great curiosity about the world and a white hot passion for civil rights. The importance of questioning the status quo. He had his issues but he left me with a passel of gifts.
If anything, Father’s Day for me is a time to consider. I’ve never been a parent. Not having had to bear that responsibility I can only wonder at the pressures Dad felt. I do take time to consider who he was in total, however. A complex mix, a series of dichotomies, as are we all. Immensely talented, a reluctant mentor. He stuck it out the entire way.
Lots of fathers don’t.
That’s saying a lot.
Without my father, I wouldn’t have this life. That gift in and of itself is enough to meditate on the man whose contribution caused us to show up.
What we do with that gift is up to us.
I know friends and family members who waste chunks of their lives blaming their fathers for a variety of offenses. To that I can only say, look in the mirror. He — just as you and I — did the best he could with what he had. None of us could ask for more, and to every father out there who hopes to be a good one, my guess is that you hope your kids will give you the grace of having done your very best as well.
My father wasn’t perfect. But he was perfect for me. And that’s quite enough. To cop an immortal line from the movie Babe, “That’ll do, Dad. That’ll do.”