As those of us who’ve lost a spouse on the heels of a parent can tell you, the two were not wholly unrelated. One created a vacuum that the other was unable to fill.
It’s obviously a lot more complicated than that, but in any case, these days, after much grief and emotional toil, both my children and I have reached a point of equilibrium. We are able to go about our day without dwelling on our losses in ways that interfere with our lives, either emotionally or practically.
Except on Father’s Day.
Father’s Day is a class A shit-show when your dad’s dead and your children’s father lives elsewhere: a holiday to be endured rather than relished.
I know we’re not supposed to care about Hallmark holidays, but speaking purely for my kids and me, we do. We really do. I was touched this year when my children helped me celebrate Mother’s Day by bringing me breakfast in bed and taking me to a museum. I was relieved when my friend, born on Valentine’s Day, continued his tradition of hosting his annual birthday bash that same night, so I wouldn’t have to spend it alone. And I was moved when I came home from said bash to a beautiful arrangement of flowers, sent to my doorstep by another friend going through a similarly tough breakup.
Say what you will about the commercialization of these holidays, at their core they are born of good intentions. Why not tell your mother, once a year, that you love her? Why not express love to a lover? Why not tell your father that you…oh, right, yes: Dad has to be around for you to tell him you love him.
When I say I had the greatest father of all time, I’m not trying to brag. I’m trying to express a truth as it exists for me. I realize it’s hyperbolic and unreasonable for me to make such a statement, that there are others out there who are convinced their fathers were or still are the greatest fathers of all time, but the truth is, if you think you had a greatest father of all time, you did.
The feelings behind my own statement are true, which makes it true for me: My dad was a marvel. I know I’m lucky to be able to say this. And it wasn’t just me who thought so. My friends liked my father so much, they would often ditch their own dads on the weekends to join in whatever mirth my dad was planning: a fishing trip; an art project; a trip to a museum; a game of touch football; hot chocolate after sledding, with a side of Simon and Garfunkel; a trip to the movie theater to see a totally inappropriate film, but why not? I saw both Tommy and Jaws the year they came out. I was 9.
That was my dad. You get the picture.
One time—and I told this story at his funeral, so it’s not something we are ashamed of discussing—the two of us were in Japan on one of his business trips. The concierge at our hotel in Tokyo had told us about a “For Tea Lady Festival” down in Kawasaki, so off we went, having no idea who the tea lady was or why she had her own festival, but whatever. As Dad always said, it’s the journey not the destination.
When we arrived at this particular destination, however, we were greeted by thousands of revelers carrying papier-mâché penises. In fact, penises were everywhere: sold on the side of the road in the form of key chains, lollipops and balloons; worn on T-shirts; sold as phallus-shaped food.
“Where are we?” Dad asked a reveler.
“For Tea Lady Festival,” said the man.
“Where’s the Tea Lady?” said Dad.
The man looked at us blankly.
“I think he’s saying ‘fertility festival,'” I said, blushing. I was 13. You can’t even imagine.
“Ah, got it,” said Dad. And without skipping a beat, he purchased two penis balloons on sticks from a vendor, handed one to me, and off we went to march in the parade, waving our penises proudly.
That, in a nutshell, was my dad. And every year on Father’s Day, I’m reminded that he’s gone. Last year, we added the absence of my kids’ father to our Father’s Day misery. I can’t even remember what we did that day. I’ve literally blocked it from memory. Maybe we went on a bike ride. I hope we went on a bike ride. That would have been a good solution to the sadness. It’s what my dad loved most. My earliest memories are of riding on the back of his bike, the sun pulsing through the leaves, the wind blowing my hair behind us—this was before bike helmets—as Dad opined on the beauty of the natural world and how lucky we were to be in it.
This year, my daughter’s graduation from high school is the same week as Father’s Day, so my ex will be flying back East for both. He’s even talking about moving back here if he can. It’s too late for our daughter, who’ll be joining her older brother at college this fall, but it would make a world of difference to our 9-year-old son.
When I heard this, I not only felt relieved and happy for my son, I felt a new appreciation for Father’s Day. My baby boy will be with his dad again. And I, on my bike, with “Sounds of Silence” in my earbuds, will be with mine.