Father’s Day Without Father
Where would we be without Facebook Memories to remind us of those who have gone before?
Over the past week heading up to Father’s Day weekend, I’ve been getting steady reminders in my newsfeed of the most important man in my life, a man who no longer walks among us but whose presence looms in my psyche like a towering oak tree whose massive branches continue to color my world in patches of light and shadow.
It was three years ago at this time that my then 86-year-old father was tumbling down a series of age-related medical issues that would put him in and out of the emergency room for the next three months until his passing in September 2019. Sensing it was likely to be our last Father’s Day weekend with him, my siblings and I were anxious to make it as meaningful and nice as possible for him.
One of the things we did that year was to help him plant his final beloved vegetable garden in the upper field of the little six-acre farm where we grew up. It was an experience I wrote about in an essay I published in Medium last year called “My Father’s Last Garden.” (I just republished it on my blog in case you missed it.)
Those are the pictures that have been popping up in my Facebook feed. They are of a glorious day in late June, nothing but blue skies overhead, warm and dry, perfect for planting. My father, who’d been increasingly down in the dumps because of his physical limitations, was, on this day, bright and chipper. Though the plot we were working was a fraction of the garden he used to plant, he was outdoors and had his hands in the ground. His troubles were temporarily forgotten.
We had succeeded in making him happy, if only for a day. Isn't that what it's all about?
It’s funny: I had eighty-six Father’s Days with my Dad while he was on this earth, eighty-six years of dinners and gifts and cards given, but I remember none of them except for that last Father’s Day with him three years ago. Holidays have a way of becoming routine, until we realize we’re running out of them.
I am now on my third Father’s Day without my father and it continues to feel as strange as the first one. No one to buy a card for, no one to exchange awkward handshakes with, no one to sit with and watch the Phillies while listening to his dry wit and colorful tales of the past. A vital link in the chain to the past has been cut, and I’m left holding the cold end link.
Fortunately, I am a father myself, of three now-adult sons, and so I can continue to experience Father’s Day from the vantage point of a Dad receiving rather than a son giving. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to spend time with my children, and that’s what I’m doing this Father’s Day weekend. I am spending the entire weekend with my youngest son at the cabin in the Endless Mountains as I continue to recuperate from my recent hip replacement. Alas, the other two boys cannot be here with us, but that’s what happens when you have adult kids who have lives of their own. You take whatever time with them that you can get.
The father-son relationship is complicated, or can be. A father not only filters his light onto his sons; he also filters his shadows. How can he not, given that he is human? My father was not perfect, and there were things about him that drove me crazy when I was growing up, such as his negative thinking and impatience at tractors, mowers, and other inanimate objects when they didn’t work.
But those imperfections are part of what makes a father-son relationship so meaningful, both to father and son. It’s a continual shaping process of both father and son on the lathe of life. Who is the tool and who is the wood? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
In the three years since my father’s passing, I’ve come to realize, in ways I didn’t before, that fatherhood is the greatest gift ever to me, more so than my health, my career, my talents, my bank accounts. What makes it such a gift is the daunting set of responsibilities and pressures that come along with it. No one fulfills those responsibilities perfectly, but perfection is not what’s required of a father. What’s required is persistence. You don’t walk away from the responsibilities, no matter how hard. You stick with it.
It’s by right of sticking with the job and doing the hard stuff that you earn the right to be called a father, to get those cards and handshakes and, most importantly, the time with your kids as they grow older.
What a gift!
Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there. Pat yourself on the back. You’ve earned it.