There is a heavy glass frame on a sideboard table in my dining room, among other sundry items like playing cards, pottery serving pieces, and right now, a stack of diplomas earned by Susanne and myself as we reorganize the office into a nursery. In the frame is a picture of my parents, some sunny day from the 1980s, on a trip they took to Hawaii. They’re seated at a luau, with beautiful leis around their necks—nothing resembling the cheap plastic ones you can find at the dollar store—but what they’re wearing most wonderfully are their smiles. My mother’s hair is perfect; my father is wearing a new, hasn’t-been-stained-yet tropical shirt, and they’re just about to settle in for a fun evening. If photos can capture and preserve a moment in time forever, this was a great one to snatch.
I appreciate the sentimentality around things like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, even as I understand that a lot of the motivation behind them comes from marketers who want to push forward a Norman Rockwellized take on parenthood for the purpose of selling us all more things. Or selling things to us that we then give as gifts to others. Our own perspectives on our parents may be rather different and more complicated than this, however.
A lot of people are angry at my father, still, more than a decade after he passed away, more than 15 years, actually. I think he grew up feeling like a small, unimportant person, because those are the sorts of things my grandmother said to him, and she walloped him on a regular basis while saying them. I always found him gentle and kind and quiet when there weren’t other people around, but he would put on a big show of things if we were in public. He’d have been perfectly happy to watch a Yankees game with me at home, arguing with the umpire on the television about where precisely the top of the strike box really sat, but he loved to play the big shot and put on a quasi tough guy persona. I definitely had a preference for the private Dad who would watch movies and laugh uproariously with me.
As I got older I realized he had a gambling problem and it had a negative effect on all of us, the biggest of which was that my mother nearly lost our house after he passed away in 1995. She went to court, explaining that she’d had no idea he’d gotten a second mortgage on the home, and I hope Donald Trump enjoyed the money my father passed on to him through his frequent visits to Atlantic City. Sadly, it was only one aspect of his life that people hold against him—and I’m not suggesting they’re wrong to do so. But for many people, not just me, remembering our dads on father’s day is like holding onto a slippery knife blade without getting cut. My father’s days, for the last 16 years, have been infested with some degree of pain. I have more than good memories, I can think of specific people who claimed their lives were damaged by a person I love dearly.
After all this time, much of my own anger at my father has evaporated. I’ve moved into new territory—understanding him as a fallible, imperfect adult from an era that is wildly different from the one in which I grew up. I forgive him for however he wronged me, and I hope that others do, too, because I’d rather live life completely and not wrapped up in my own persistent capacity to self-torture. I appreciate the gifts he gave me and the years we spent together. From time to time we converse in my dreams, and when I wake I always decide to treat it like a real conversation, tricking the wall that death puts between the living and the lost ones. Why not? It’s my choice to believe in my dreams, I suppose.
His misdeeds, bad decisions, and compulsions make Father’s Day complicated, as he was complicated, I suppose. Most of my grief over his death has been held inside me, not for public or even family display. While it’s devastating to lose a loved one, I feel something in addition to sympathy for people who don’t get even one funeral service length of open catharsis. For them, days like this are reminders of dysfunction and weariness. And not represented in a Hallmark card.
Now I, through happenstance, the power of medicine, and absurdity, will soon be a father. I know lots of things about babies and children, but I’ve never attempted to raise one myself. I will of course explain the concept of the strike zone, and I’ve already announced that I will do my fatherly duty in embarrassing the hell out of my child, just like my dad took such glee in doing to me. But I’ll pass down the songs my father sang to me and hope that it helps my baby love music—old music from Hoagie Carmichael and Billie Holliday and Glenn Miller—the way that I do now. I know I’ll try my best, and I know I’ll make a long line of mistakes, and I hope that someday, my child forgives me my weaknesses and comes to see me as a whole person. Because while there are a lot of things said about fathers in our culture, their children tend to love them anyway.