My dad died sixteen Fathers Days ago. But it feels very recent. The guy certainly made an impression. Not because of who he was — a professor with four masters’ degrees and a doctorate, from three different countries, paid for entirely with several well-deserved scholarships — but because of other things that don’t really have to do with any of that.
I still think of him several times every day. Not in a sad or painful way. Not like those sentimental scenes in the movies with dads and their kids laughing together in the sunlight on the playground covered in face paint and pretty ribbons or whatever. And definitely not in a spiritual, religious, or woo-woo kind of way where he’s watching out for me from above. It’s comfortable — simple, vivid flashbacks of boring, everyday stuff, like him sitting on a couch reading the paper and yawning because it’s late. Or walking around the mall looking bored out of his mind while my mom does the shopping. Really useless, mundane, everyday shit like that. Maybe the comfortable meh-ness is what makes the virtuality of his day-to-day existence in my head feel so organic.
And in my dreams, he’s always alive. Any time I have a dream with my family in it, he’s there like he always was. All his kids have kids of their own now, grandchildren who he never met. But in the dreams, he’s talking to them, playing with them like he’s been there the whole time. The closest it ever got to feeling like he was dead in one of my dreams is once, when we all thought he was dead, but it turned out he’d just run off to Zanzibar where he was hiding in anonymity with a new wife. And I remember thinking, “Thank God he’s okay.” And then I woke up and he was still dead.
It’s not that there aren’t nice, sentimental memories — it’s just that you probably wouldn’t see them that way unless you were there.
See, my dad never actually told me he loved me. He never called me “son” and never kissed me even once that I can remember. The only time he hugged me and my siblings was once right before he was wheeled into the OR for cardiac bypass surgery. He got through it, but he was nervous. I was a senior in high school. You’d think I would remember that day because of the surgery — you don’t exactly go through that every day. But I remember it more because he actually hugged us. That was rarer.
He was a South Asian man born in the 1930s, first Indian, then Pakistani after the 1947 partition. He was the only one who made it out of his family of seven brothers and sisters to study in the West, first in Greece, then the US, then Canada. He had a progressive mindset in transition, with one of his graduate degrees in sociology. He was intellectually conscious and respectful of the inherent problems with traditional gender roles and stereotypes, but behaviorally and hormonally lagging. He married a progressive South Asian professor with a similar background — a woman also armed with a doctorate and a career — but remained constantly embroiled in a struggle between the expectations of the roles of men and women that he had been indoctrinated with since childhood, and the acquired intellectual awareness that they were largely bullshit. Occasionally, he could be an asshole. But he always meant well.
I was his first child, and his first son. I wonder if I was also his first experience with real intimacy. Not the voluntary social or romantic kind, but the vulnerable, unconditional kind you get from a helpless little kid who isn’t jaded enough yet to guard his unfailing trust in you, or pretend that he doesn’t need you as much as he does. I think it was mutual. He never expressed it verbally. And he didn’t really hug or kiss me as much as he wrestled with me or rolled me around in the sand. Guy things. When he got tired and I kept harassing him to play more — one of my earliest memories — he would throw me on his chest, bushy and manly like the African jungle that he convinced me it was, and tell me to look for all the lions and tigers. He would sleepily express his approval of every mole and scar I’d excitedly point out (my interpretation of the assigned task was fine as far as I was concerned) until I fell asleep.
So yeah, things like that. Mundane, everyday things that were very satisfying then, and remain so today.
No I-love-yous or I’ll-always-be-here-for-yous. No Just-talk-to-me-if-you-need-anything or Come-here-and-give-your-old-man-a-hug. No heart-to-heart talks or I’m-proud-of-you-son. Just a lot of doing stuff together. Pitching tents; making cars out of wood to race; shit-talking Reagan’s foreign policy to me when I was in 4th grade just as he would’ve to Reagan’s face if he ever met him (or so I thought); desensitizing me to my queasiness about killing bugs for my 7th grade insect collection, yet hinting at an appreciation that I possessed it; and hitting me hard if I was being a dick — and then instead of apologizing or hugging me afterwards, just, well, doing more things together. “Come with me to the grocery store. We need to get bread.”
This year — my 17th Fathers Day without my dad — is also my first Fathers Day as a dad myself.
I’ve been thinking about him a lot more since Zoë was born. I draw parallels in my mind. For me, Brian Jay Stanley put it best when he wrote about his baby daughter:
“How can I be dependent on a being who, six months ago, did not exist? I did not need her when I did not have her. But she has entered my life as a nail enters a block of wood, simultaneously creating a hole and filling it. Remove the nail, and the hole remains. Love completes unhappy people, but uncompletes happy people, because love means we can no longer be happy alone.”
I wonder what kind of dad I will be. I’ll probably tell my kids often that I love them, that I’m there for them, that they can count on me. It’s a different time, a different world, and I’ll probably be a different dad than mine was. But a better one? That’s still a pretty tall order.
I never told him I loved him either, not when he was alive. That would’ve just been weird. Sixteen years ago — right after we took him off life support, a few months after he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer — was the first time I really looked into his eyes. They were lifeless, and didn’t turn away. The jungle was still there, gray and still. I kissed his lips and said goodbye. And then I finally told him I loved him. I know he didn’t hear me. He was dead. But fuck it, I know he knew. Like I did.
An older version of this article appeared in The Good Men Project.