Reflections on Fathers’ Day 2000
This is my first Fathers’ Day since my father died. In many ways life is not the same. One thing I do not miss is shopping for a card. It wasn’t like the 1950’s sitcom “Father Knows Best” around our house. I remember my Dad working a lot and when he was home he was often grumpy and irritable and preaching to us that we had a better childhood than he did. So cards about having the perfect father never rang true and genuine.
Occasionally I could find one I felt good about. Other years I skipped the card and just called or visited. Last year I found a poem by e. e. cummings that captured my feelings towards my dad so well that I read it at his funeral. Cummings wrote that his father was a true father because his dad loved him. So Cummings loved him back. As a child he worshiped his father. In his youth he battled his father, and as a man they understood each other. Through it all they loved each other.
Cummings’ words certainly rang true for me. As a little boy I adored my father. I couldn’t wait for him to get home from work and put me on his knee and say, “How’s Daddy’s little boy?” As a teenager and as a young man, we did battle. We butted heads over everything from the Vietnam War to Civil Rights to religion and even whether marijuana should be legalized. If we agreed on anything, neither one of us would admit it. It wasn’t until he was an old man and terminally ill that I think we finally understood each other. I wish it didn’t take so long. I wish we weren’t so stubborn with each other. But still I count myself blessed for I know many men who do not understand or feel understood by their fathers.
Of course life is always easier to understand in hindsight. There’s a lot that is still blurry to me, but it does get clearer as time goes on. In ancient times, Homer wrote, that “It is a wise child who knows his own father.” Indeed it is hard to know yourself if you don’t know your father. It was true that childhood in our family was far easier than his had been. Both of his parents died within a year when he was eight years old, and he grew up in an orphanage with other bereaved boys. He raised eight healthy children to adulthood, only to have one of my brothers die instantly in a car accident in 1978.
Being a father myself helped me to understand my father. As Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” put it, “When you become a parent, it is your biggest chance to grow again. You have another crack at yourself.” As parents we weave together the threads of the past from our parents with the threads of the future in our children. It wasn’t until my middle age when I had been through a messy divorce, had four children of my own, and had struggled for many years with my son’s autism and severe mental retardation that my father made more sense to me. As I came to understand my own grief, I realized that I had grown up in the shadow of his grief.
Since many men are not used to talking about their feelings, when a child is diagnosed with special needs for a lifetime, we tend to inhibit our grief over that loss of a healthy child by withdrawing, isolating, and immersing ourselves in our work. The way that my father had lived with his grief didn’t work for me. I found myself too grumpy and irritable and withdrawn. I stopped enjoying life, so I had to grow. This helped me understand my father in a new way and how hard it is was for him to grieve his losses. For a child the worst loss imaginable would be the loss of your parents. For a parent the most feared loss would be the loss of your child.
A child’s disability or chronic illness changes and transforms us as men and as fathers and sons to our fathers. There are joys as well as sorrows. It helps men who are fathers of children with special needs to connect with other men in similar circumstances. When men sit around and share their experiences having a child with special needs, invariably I observe a certain pattern. They tell their stories of finding out something is wrong, getting a diagnosis, beginning to get help, struggling to get the best services possible, and learning how to communicate with their wives. They talk about their fears and their anger and their frustrations.
Telling your own story and listening to other fathers’ stories is the way we learn about fatherhood. The stories of these fathers I know always conclude with how much they have learned and how they have become better men, better husbands, and better fathers. Inside the often tough exterior of these men, they are tender and loving with good humor and insight. For readers who have access to the Internet, you can read the inspiring words of many fathers of children with special needs at www.fathersnetwork.org. Let them touch your life through the stories of their struggles and joys.
On my first Fathers’ Day without my father, I appreciate my father for butting heads with me. I think he eventually knew as I finally do that we were just trying to connect. It was only when we finally stopped trying to change each other that we understood each other. I am trying to make it a little easier for my children, but I am not sure I always succeed at that. Like fathers everywhere, I want to give them an easier and a better childhood than I had. But if I ever grumble to my beautiful children about how they have it better than I did, will somebody in my family please shake me.