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If Your Father's Day Isn't Quite So Happy

If you're someone for whom Father's Day conjures up a host of feelings that don't add up to exactly happy, this is for you.
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If you're someone for whom Father's Day conjures up a host of feelings that don't add up to exactly happy, this is for you.

People always say that life is short. And in most ways it certainly is. But in one key way it's long. And that way is relative to how, over the course of one's life, one's feeling about one's parents inevitably change.

The way you feel about your father today is very slightly different from the way you felt about your father yesterday. That is true because every day you are influenced slightly more by who you are, and slightly less by who your father was. However strong a grip your father has on your consciousness today, tomorrow he will have less. That's one of the mightiest laws of life.

My own father died this past January. I'm now 55 years old. Over the course of my life I can't imagine what feelings I haven't had for my father. I began my life believing that he was virtually unknowable. As a young boy I desperately yearned for his love and attention. Then (and with no small amount of encouragement from his ex-wife, my mother), I thought of him as profoundly and irreparably psychologically damaged. And then I went through a very long time of being entirely separate from him: of knowing that I would always yearn for his love, but never have it.

So I went some 25 years rarely seeing or speaking with the man. He didn't come to my wedding; I didn't ever visit him, for at least a decade I had no idea where he was living or what he was doing. Well into my adulthood, I continued doing what I had been consciously and purposefully doing since I was 12 or so, which was structuring my psychology -- my life, my entire sense of who I was -- around the hole that was my father's absence from my life.

You can't make somebody love you. And in a core, primal kind of way, you can also not help but love (though in this context love is an awfully tricky word to use) your father.

And that's the sort of thing that makes life so gosh-darned... interesting, isn't it?

At 38 years old, I suddenly and out of nowhere became a Christian. Quite soon thereafter I found myself with a sense of forgiveness toward my father. So I learned where he was living, and wrote him a letter saying that I loved him, and why. My letter went unanswered. Over the course of the next four months I wrote him four more such letters. After the fifth one he wrote me back, and invited me and my wife Catherine to come spend a week with him and his wife, my step-mother since I was ten.

So off Cat and I went to Wilmington, NC! This is a picture of the four of us from that visit:


In the course of the next dozen or so years we visited my father a few more times. After my step-mother died a few years back, he even came out to California to visit us.

It turns out that my father, pretty much the ultimate man's man, liked having a man for a son. He wasn't so good with me as a boy and teenager--but, as it happened, I grew into his son after all. Since I was 16 I have loved a good cigar; I'm not averse to Jack Daniels on the rocks; I know how to put on cufflinks and tie a bow-tie (because nothing says Major Stud like a bow-tie). All that manly kind of stuff can, I know, seem so corny; so much of its expression in my own life seems rooted in that whole Frank Sinatra, James Bond, Rat Pack cool thing that so informed my father's era. But I love all that kind of stuff. I can't remember the last time I left the house wearing anything but silk slacks, a Tommy Bahama shirt, a Panama hat, and... actual shoes.

Shoes like my dad used to wear!

For decades I bought all that sort of clothing at thrift stores.

The point is, just being alive caused my attitudes toward my father to change.

Your feelings toward your father will change, too. They must. It's an immutable part of being human. The only way that your psychological relationship with your parent and siblings won't evolve is if, through the use of drugs or alcohol, you arrest your own psychology in place.

That happens, of course. It's tragic. (If that's happening with you, stop it. What you're afraid of is much less frightening than what you're making yourself live through.)

If your relationship with you father is... something less than you wish it was, hang in there. Where your dad didn't love you, love yourself. Where he did, try your best to give him credit for that. Where he simply couldn't, give him your sympathy.

Your father will be gone soon enough. And the chances are that when he is, you'll still be here. And it's almost fully guaranteed that, come what may, you'll end up being a better person than he ever was. It's extremely unlikely that right now you're not a better person than he was.

You win, friend. You were always going to win that particularly painful and drawn-out war. It's just a matter of how much of your life you spend not knowing that.