I usually try to go into hiding on Father's Day. The Hallmark holidays strike as little more than marketing gimmicks. But the real reason I hide is that I am just not ready to be a father. I never was. And now my children are all in their mid-twenties. Come Father's Day, I am all regret and fear. I wish I had known how to love them better. They deserved so much more than I was able to offer.
You learn to become a father by being a son. This much I know. But my father fled the simple responsibilities of fatherhood when I was just starting school. My mother and I were very much alone in a wide, wide world that seemed far from welcoming. She was brave, my twenty-something mother, shuttling us from rooming house, to house-shares, to apartments. When a man moved in who didn't care much for me, I knew to keep my peace. She was doing what she needed to do. I needed to keep my head down, my mouth shut, and prepare my own plan for survival. So I did just that.
It did not help things that this new man of hers came to despise me. He would bait me, trying to get me to fight him in his perpetual drunken rage. I knew there was a right to remain silent before I knew there was a Constitution. I exercised mine to keep the peace; he'd hurl curses and invective at me, and I would simply stand, looking and waiting for yet another storm to pass. But his was a rage that must be slaked; if I would not yield satisfaction, he would find others who would. One night he beat a man badly with a baseball bat. The man's friends were reportedly on their way to our home to kill my mother's lover. He stood waiting for them in the front of the house with a gun. I had a different gun and waited out back. It was one time I prayed earnestly. I wanted the angry men to come and kill him, and not to appear first out back, where I stood guard. This is the Detroit I remember.
This man did not teach me much about fatherhood. I fled that house just after my seventeenth birthday, and I have not been back in many years. I will not return to a place where I was so hated.
I suppose given those roots it was to be expected that I would grow to become a crooked sort of weed, and so it happened. I married young, and had two children while still a young man trying to find a place in the world. My first wife and I divorced, and I wept the many tears of a divorced man knowing that I could not provide for my children in the way I had hoped to. But I fought to do better than my father did. I saw the kids. I provided for them. When my son came to live with me I felt grace for the first time since I had held him in my arms shortly after his birth, feelings pouring from me that I did not know I had. My daughter and I struggled to remain close, but I now hear affection in her voice when we talk. She, too, is grace. I believe in miracles, even though I say I do not.
I have a stepson now, too. He taught me much. The biggest gift was never to be cruel, and never to make him a stranger in his own home: I did not want him offering furtive prayers for my demise. His mother and I have been together now for almost 15 years. I raised him and refer to him as my own son. My love for each of these three children flows now from the same place, and laps against the same shores. I am rich in love; richer than I deserve.
But come Father's Day I am all sorrow and fear. I wanted so badly for my children, all three of them, never to know the fears and terrors I knew as a child. But I see now that my conduct and the choices I made created fears and terrors they must now struggle with in their own silent and creative ways. When these children come to me with open arms I worry that I cannot fill those arms with all they need. I worry that I never have, and that I am incapable of doing so.
In this, I suppose I am no different than any other father. We summon children like gods from nothing, and they tumble fully formed yet formless from the wombs of our passion. Parenthood is the hardest role of any, and none of us are really prepared for it. But I do not want to forgive my particular failings with generalized truths. When I recall the times I was not there for my children, or the things I could have done better, a part of me weeps. Nothing more.
My wife is a wise woman. She reminds me in moments of despair that our children need me still. This challenges me as I broke free of the obvious parental yokes while still a child. But I see that she is right; I still need what I will now never receive. Last night, our youngest came home from medical school with his girl friend. We took them to dinner. I was terrified that she would see my shortcomings. But all I saw in my son's eyes was love for me, his mother and this new young blossom sitting beside him.
So this Father's Day I will try not to outrun my sorrow. I will try to be present and still. I will try simply to say "I love you" to the three adults who still look to me for things I've never known how to give. Growing old is good that way. You learn, along the years, that you can't escape the past. At best you can learn to dwell in the shadow of ancient things, and hope to provide modest shelter for those passing along the same road you have traveled.