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. It’s like he shuffles between being his mother and embodying his father.
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. It occurs to me that 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.
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 not escape from the pain of loss; even distancing yourself from people doesn’t protect you from the grief.
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 the 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. I always felt I had to walk on eggshells around him, afraid to set something off, afraid I’d see a side of him I didn’t want to know – an undesirable part of him that I’d have to accept was also a part of me.
The thing is, I never considered that my father might be a little broken inside. I never considered that maybe he, too, was walking on eggshells.