I called my dad last Father’s Day, and he told me a long, pointless story about his car trouble. I told him I loved him when we said goodbye, and he didn’t say it back. I hung up smiling. This is how my dad is. He doesn’t know how to express himself in a way that reflects a normal amount of affection; it’s always nothing or everything at once. Not spectrum but a binary.
Growing up, my biggest fear was losing one of my parents. It never occurred to me that this wasn’t a fear that would leave me after childhood, that experiencing loss as an adult is only marginally easier than as a child. The prospect of losing parents only looms larger the older we get—more inevitable.
On this Father’s Day, all I can focus on is a feeling that I have probably suppressed for too many years. It’s not really about my dad. At least, not in his capacity as my dad. I’m thinking about who he was before me. He didn’t lead the easiest life. He was only in his 20s when he lost his father—the grandfather I never knew and will never meet. When I was young, I knew him only from the small black-and-white photo that sat in a frame on my grandmother’s dresser. I sometimes wonder, to this day, what my father’s relationship with his mother would look like if they hadn’t lost my grandfather so early. I sometimes wonder if he was like the jovial glue that held two salty people together.
I’ll never know the answer.
My dad has a habit of repeating himself. It’s how his brain works, and I understand that. It’s how mine works, too. He has told me the same few stories about my grandfather more times than I can remember. His favorite to recount, I think, was about the time he received a call from a family friend to pick up his incapacitated father. My dad always talked about riding his scooter to the house, finding his father unconscious but smiling on the floor. He carried him back home, shocked at how tiny and light the man was.
He was loving and he cared deeply for other people; but he couldn’t take care of himself. Alcoholism killed him at 45. It rocked his family when he died so young: I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t remember him fondly. He was everything his wife was not: gentle, kind, patient, warm. When he died, technically, he left my father and grandmother with only each other…which really means, I suppose, he left my dad alone.
It’s funny how the things that carry the most weight in our hearts, that loom big and strong in our memories, can be so small in person. The big moments are just that—moments. The person whose life and death probably changed my father the most was fragile and bird-boned.
The first time I saw my father cry, I was 12. His mother had just died. That was the moment I understood love doesn’t imply fondness, and it stuck with me. My thoughts return to it sometimes when they have no where else to go. It’s a crushing feeling, like there is no escape from the pain of loss; even distancing yourself from people doesn’t protect you from the grief.
Both he and I still try, though.
It has taken me years to admit it, but the reason my father and I have a fraught relationship is that we are fundamentally similar. I butt heads with my dad because we are the same person. We have the same flaws. We think too much and we feel everything too deeply. The world makes us sad and angry, and we retreat from it to lick our wounds so often that we will never stop being lonely. These are the reasons I hate my father and also the reasons why I love him.
It’s complicated, I guess.
If my biggest fear, as a child, was the death of a parent, my second-biggest was turning into my father. I saw terrible things in him that I never wanted to emulate. Things that, over time, I began to see flickering within myself and I leaped, fearfully and unsuccessfully, to quell them.
There’s a funny thing that happens, the older you get. You start to see your parents as just regular people—adults who are flawed and confused and flying blind through life, just as you are…but trying.
I look back now and the “terrible” things my father and I share don’t seem quite so terrible anymore. I sit with these qualities, the emotional waterfalls he has left to me, and I work a little each day on confronting and accepting them, rather than running away. The way my dad took care of my grandmother until she died, rather than putting her in a nursing home or turning her away. They were never close, but he tried to accept her as she was.
And that is what I’m left with, in the end: the legacy I choose to take with me. That too many feelings are better than none. That warmth is more important than pride. That caring is worthwhile. Even when the caring overwhelms you, even when you don’t know how to express it. That trying is all we can do. Even when your “trying” is telling a story about mechanical failure and hanging up without an “I love you.”
That the people who matter will understand your effort, anyway.