“Complicated” is a word I’ve often used with Father’s Day. For nearly thirty years, I’ve had a complicated relationship with this day that celebrates dads. Mostly, that’s due to my own absent father. He left when I was eight, and my brother and sister were just six. We saw him a handful of times after the day he packed up his things, spoke to him a handful of times after the day he last visited. But in all ways that mattered, he’d vanished in a heartbeat, and I never celebrated Father’s Day. Even wishing a Happy Father’s Day to other adults in my life—uncles or family friends who were present and excellent fathers to their own kids—was difficult. The words just didn’t feel right on my tongue. They were too jagged-edged and razor sharp.
When I got married, and my daughter was born, and my husband became a father, Father’s Day became a day I was excited to celebrate. Father’s Day became uncomplicated. For two reasons. One, it was my quiet joy to pour my energy into making the day special for my husband, to turn the focus of the day onto what I had rather than what I didn’t. And two, because I was so impossibly grateful to know that with my husband as their father, my children would always be able to celebrate the day the way it should be, without complicated feelings. The words would never be too jagged or sharp for their mouths—if I could help it, they would never have to know that simple words could sometimes feel jagged and sharp.
And then the most jagged, sharp words I ever heard entered our lives: aggressive brain tumor. And twenty months later, my husband, my children’s father, was gone. And among all the zillions of losses that truth creates, there is this one: Father’s Day is complicated for my children. The words “Happy Father’s Day” are jagged and sharp for them, too. They know the heartache I never wanted them to know.
Pre-aggressive brain cancer diagnosis, we had the kind of boring Father’s Day that’s almost too cliché for a Lifetime movie. My husband left to play golf with the men in the family and then returned home to man the grill for a huge, extended family barbecue. At some point, one or all the men would end up passed out on the couch while some golf tournament played on the television. It was the exact kind of uncomplicated boringness I longed for as a kid, and the kind I was thrilled my kids knew exclusively.
Until their dad died. And we celebrated our first Father’s Day as a family of three, as a family marked by loss, as a family intimately acquainted with grief.
That first year, the kids and I woke up and I was terrified by how complicated the day was going to be. We didn’t plan a huge family barbecue, and instead we told funny stories about years past. We didn’t stroll through stores selling cards and gifts for “dads and grads,” and instead painted rocks to bring to the cemetery. And we tried our best to stay away from social media, from the posts that would remind my daughter that she will never post a photo of her dad walking her down the aisle and my son will never see his father hold his son, and instead spent time being present with each other.
Even still, despite all the ways I tried to insulate us from complications, they found us anyway. Because you can’t hide from loss and you can’t will away grief—I’ve tried. Complicated is simply inevitable.
With Father’s Day rolling around this year while the country and world remain in the throes of a pandemic, Father’s Day has the potential to be even more complicated than usual. As a family of three, rather than a family of four, we are confronted by our loss every moment of every day of this pandemic.
I will once again do my best to keep the day uncomplicated for my kids. I’ll keep us off social media and avoid places with Father’s Day paraphernalia plastered everywhere (easy to do, since we are staying home more than not until every step out of the house feels a little less perilous). But it’s going to be a complicated day.
And maybe that’s okay. Maybe even if I can’t un-complicate a complicated day, I have to remember that complicated days are followed, eventually, by easy mornings. The truth I learned as a father-less child, and the one my children are learning every day, is that sometimes complicated days build you up, even as they threaten to tear you down.
Complicated days are hard, but complicated days also, sometimes, prepare you for the next complicated day. Because complicated days don’t exist in a vacuum. And while I wish with every breath in my body that my kids had the uncomplicated Father’s Day I always wanted, it’s comforting to know they are learning to be a little more prepared for whatever tomorrow will bring.
Father’s Day will always be complicated, for me and for my kids. There’s no way to smooth out the rough edges of this day or to make the words that bring our loss to the forefront any less jagged, but we can choose to still celebrate the day, celebrate the memory and the man, and we can choose to redefine complicated in the way that brings us a little more light and love than before.