Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Father's Day Phone Call To An Absent Dad

On Sunday, I called my dad on Father's Day. I waited until late in the afternoon, mulling my course of action while my Facebook feed filled up with messages of love and appreciation to their fathers. They added pics of fathers doing fatherly things dressed in clothing that was delightfully dated. 

I know that many people criticize holidays such as Father's Day that seem to be the invention of greeting card companies, but the outpouring I witnessed yesterday online seemed sincere, making it more difficult to completely shrug off the day as I once had. 

I haven't sent a card or made a call for Father's Day in about a decade, if not longer. My relationship with my father is cordial in the best of times and contentious or nonexistent during the worst. He spent most of my childhood 1,500 miles away in Miami. I saw him once a year, tops. As I got older, I might even go two years without seeing him in person. When I was very young, I missed him. But as I matured, I stopped longing for him. My life was taking shape quite nicely without him. When he tried to insert himself in it, it felt disruptive more than anything else. He had been cast in the movie role of dad during preproduction but his lines were subsequently cut and no one bothered telling him. Actually, it was more like he quit the movie when he moved out of state. But despite this decision, he tried to reserve his role as a recurring character. But fathers aren't wacky neighbors. They work best when they make regular appearances.

I used to be quite bitter about this but those feelings are mostly past. I've forgiven him, but not because I wished to do anything nice for him. In fact, I probably resisted forgiving him for years precisely because well-meaning folks used a lot of Oprah speak about how forgiving him was the first step to  establishing a relationship with him. They wished to transform my anger and hurt into something pat and inspirational enough to be written about sentimentally in Reader's Digest

But at some point along the way, I forgave my father. Or more accurately, I let go of whatever anger I was still holding onto if for no other reason than that it leaked out of me over time, like a balloon losing air. When I called him or he called me, I no longer felt the need to confront him over past misdeeds. We spoke like acquaintances, which is what we were if you subtracted our blood relatedness. 

Over the last six months, we have been speaking more frequently--once every few weeks--and the conversations have been altogether more pleasant than they used to be. My father used to try to force closeness on me, not realizing that the ship for that sort of relationship had long since sailed. I didn't know what sort of bond we could form but it would not resemble a typical father-daughter relationship. Too much time had passed, much of it spent apart. I didn't feel a sense of obligation towards him the way I do my mother. My father, like my mother, hasn't been in the best of health, but I don't trouble myself with his care. I hope he stays well or as he is, but I doubt I'll intervene to do much for a man who left when I was 6. For my mother, on the other hand, I'm doing everything I can to help her. She drives me crazy daily but she raised me. Simple as that. 

But I am able to see that my father has changed and genuinely feels bad about the past and I have no wish to punish him for it. So on Sunday I called him, but I couldn't bring myself to open with "Happy Father's Day." Instead, I prattled on about my recent trip to Nicaragua and the projects I was working on. Only after twenty minutes of conversation, when the hang-up seemed imminent, did I finally offer the "holiday" greeting. Typically, "Happy Father's Day" is a sign of gratitude from child to father, but I didn't feel this towards my dad. I was grateful he was alive and that I could still talk to him, unlike others who have lost parents. But I didn't feel gratitude for the role he played in my life. 

"Thank you," he replied simply. No added push for closeness, no "I love you," an expression that is freighted and complicated for me. Just a simple "thank you." And for that, I was grateful.

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