There was a time when I thought the idea of a Father’s Day a tad ridiculous. Either you have a father, or you haven’t. If you have one, you treat him decently. If you love him, take care of him. If you don’t care for him so much, be gentle and attend to him as often as you can. (Gingerly, I avoid the word ‘respect,’ for it suggests to me a cautious distance – something I or my brothers never maintained with our father). In any of this, I couldn’t see the place for a day earmarked for fathers. It seemed a bit silly.
The impression was driven also by the profusion of cards I encountered in stores. The messages were lofty, scraping the sky, such as “You are the light of my life” or embarrassingly literal, “I wouldn’t be here without you.” The rest of the messages did not bear repeating, so cloying or kitschy they were. I took the cards to be a symbol of the falsity of sentiments and agreed with other young friends who spurned the day as a commercial gimmick.
Commercial it certainly is where I live. I am bombarded by daily ads for weeks preceding the day. Restaurants want the progeny to make reservations and treat their fathers to a wine-sodden, calorie-rich dinner, perfectly honed to elevate their blood pressure and sugar levels. Every department store proclaims and illustrates the charming gifts, from expensive Patek Philippe watches to Bulgari colognes that dutiful sons and grateful daughters should shower on their patriarchs. Hit them in the stomach, or on the wrist and cheek, and children have discharged their duty in a demonstrable, if purse-wise punitive, way. I agreed readily with hard-nosed Father’s Day skeptics. No longer.
The first thing that happened is that I lost my father. Nothing dramatic, a minor surgery went bad and a perfectly healthy person died in short order. I was overseas, and the last rites had to be done before I knew about it. I had an irrepressible sense of unfinished business. I had promised him I would come periodically to see him, and he would not miss me. Now it was to remain an unfulfilled promise.
That promise has haunted me and never quite left me. He loved to travel. I cherish the memory of the few trips we made together. But most of my world-wide travel came after his death. I have never yet visited a new country and watched a pretty lake or a glorious sun-drenched mountain without thinking, “I wish he were with me. He would have loved it.”
Father was a soft-spoken, friendly person. He made friends wherever he went. Whenever he visited me, I noticed that my gardener and chauffeur had more to talk with him than they ever shared with me. He would find out if any of them had a sick child and then urge me to do something about it. His humanity put me to shame. My generosity rarely matched his concern and attentiveness. Even after all these busy, numbing decades, I am astonished that I still miss him with an aching acuteness.
No, I don’t need a Father’s Day to remember him. But I am glad when it comes and opens a wound whose hurt I prefer to oblivion.
The other thing that has happened is that I have now two daughters. Unlike some fathers that I know and hear of, I always wanted daughters instead of sons. Young girls dream of playing with dolls; as a young man, I dreamed of having doll-like girls of my own. My wife was considerate enough to deliver my wish.
My living dolls have grown up and become charming women, thoughtful and loving. Not in the least like their careless, frequently oblivious father, they never forget a birthday and I always get a handwritten card. They travel a lot for their work and sometimes for fun, but I always get a picture postcard to say where they are and what they are doing. More to the point, they remember Father’s Day, every year. This year the card from one said, “On Father’s Day, hope you know how much you mean all year long,” while the one from the other said, “You mean so much to me, I wish I could tell you every day.” I am not very good at expressing what they mean to me, but they still write graciously, “Thank you for everything you do and everything you are.”
I always long for them, and, in my naïve fatherly anguish, I am tempted sometimes to think: They are too busy, with their job and their life, to think about me; they will never understand how much my aging heart craves to see their face, hear their voice, touch their hand. And then comes the much maligned, heavily scorned, highly mercenary event, the Father’s Day, and in my mailbox lands an infinitely reassuring card and a dulcet voice on the phone says, “Daddy, I love you.” My heart leaps.
Long live Father’s Day.
The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]