Father’s Day does not mean the same thing to everyone. The first time I ever paid attention to it was in 4th grade. Before that, lacking a father, I overlooked it. That year however, suddenly there was an art project that everyone had to do. (Note to younger readers: this was back in the day when every family in the neighborhood was a two-parent family. Actually, I knew one other family who had no dad and we became fast friends. Unfortunately, none of those kids was in my 4th grade class so I was on my own.) The teacher announced that we were to draw a head shot of our fathers with crayon on a giant piece of art paper, at our desks, right then. We would take them home at the end of the day so we could present them to our dads on Father’s Day.
I sat at my desk, flummoxed. I was also irked – how was it fair to put me in this awkward situation? Okay, I soon decided, it wasn’t, but I’d better cope with life as it is. I could have just drawn a picture of my mom and kept quiet, but I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be counted. So I marched up to the teacher’s desk and said, “I don’t have a father. He died,” and waited for her response. Why should I be the only one who’s uncomfortable?
“Well, dear,” she said, “How about an uncle?”
What? Yes, I have uncles, several, but you can’t trade a father in for an uncle who is very nice, but someone I only see once a year. I didn’t know the word “tone-deaf” then but I knew how it felt.
“No, I don’t have an uncle nearby,” I said.
“Well,” she said, shifting in her seat, “Certainly there is someone else you could choose, a friend or something, a nice man who’s a friend of the family?”
Wait a minute. Shouldn’t she say that she’s kind of sorry my father is dead before she starts replacing him with bit players? Was it mandatory that every kid had a convenient male on retainer? I wasn’t going to help her do any of that.
“Not really,” I said. We were at an impasse. She was starting to get annoyed; I was already annoyed. I decided to bring this to an end.
“How about if I draw a picture of my mom, then?” I said.
“I guess you could, since there’s no one else.”
“Good. I will,” I said. I went back to my desk and got busy. I came across the picture a couple of years ago, in the bottom of a trunk. I remembered working on it, with a feeling of having stood up for something important, like respect.
But I was used to not having a father around. It was pretty easy to make my point with the teacher and then move along. I took the picture home and showed it to my mother while telling her the story, but neither of us had much to say about it. Obviously, it was significant enough for her to save the picture though.
These days, I’m aware how different it is to experience Father’s Day when the father you’ve known your entire life is suddenly gone. It turns into a day to dread, a reminder that life will never be like it was, with everyone who’s important in place where they belong. In fact, grieving adults have told me that both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day carry a particular power to kick you upstairs to the adult world, to the front lines of life where no one will ever love you like Mom or Dad did.
They tell me:
“I regress back to feeling like a little girl. I would always corner him on a holiday and pump him for ideas about my current dilemma. Now I realize that I can’t even pick up the phone anymore and call for advice. I keep reaching for it though.”
“Before he died, he told me that he’d already told me everything I needed to know so I’d be able to hear his voice when I needed to. But he was wrong, except partly right. I usually can predict what he would have said, I think.”
“The whole bunch still got together on Father’s Day this year because my brothers are dads, and it’s good to get the cousins together. We’ve just always celebrated together. We talked about Dad here and there, remembering last year when he was in the wheelchair, and laughing about the time he filled his plate at the children’s buffet because he liked the choices better. In fact, we had a lot of laughs. I hadn’t actually seen Mom laugh in a while. So, I guess it was better than I thought it was going to be.”
“I just told everyone I was going to spend the day alone, I’d just be too sad. So I stayed home and wrote him a letter. About what I’d been doing, the new job, and mainly how I missed him so much. I didn’t know this would happen, but it helped me so much to do that.”
“It wasn’t my favorite day but I got through it, and waking up the next day, I felt a big relief – I’d survived. Besides, he always laughed that it was one of those Hallmark holidays that aren’t really necessary anyway – he already knew he was great. That was Dad.”
So, like so much in grieving, we face a tough time, we make choices about what is best to do about it, and often, we find a little gift we weren’t expecting at the end.