Father’s Day, ugh, how I used to hate that holiday. Every June, I’d make my obligatory trip to the Hallmark shop and sift through rows of cards until I eventually settled on something that said, “Hope your day is special,” or “Thinking of you.” I never chose a card that sung my father’s praises. Father’s Day only served as a reminder of all the things our relationship lacked as father and daughter: how infrequently he’d been there when I needed him, how I felt I couldn’t meet his expectations, how I longed to be loved and cherished by him. On Father’s Day, I honored my father because it was expected, but not as an act of love, not really.
When I was a kid, Dad spent a lot of time away. He’d be gone for six months, sometimes even a year, at a time, doing his duty as an officer in the Marine Corps.
When he did return home, we’d share dinners together as a family, but afterwards, I’d usually find him holed up in the den, his thick black reading glasses perched on his nose, a well-loved book in his lap, the reel-to-reel playing Louis Armstrong or Bennie Goodman. Detached. He did teach me cribbage, and would tease me on occasion about my boyfriends. But mostly, he was distant, ensconced in a world where I didn’t seem to have a place.
As I grew older, I came to realize my Father’s Day cards represented an onerous ritual, my reminder to him, and to myself, of the ways in which our relationship had faltered. It had become a ritual that held me hostage to my past.
I remember attending the ballet one summer; I must have been in my early 30s by then, when a father and teenage daughter eased into their seats ahead of me. Perhaps it was the tender way in which he caressed her shoulder as she removed her shawl, or the easy laughter they shared. I could only watch briefly before turning away in tears. Why couldn’t it have been like that between my Dad and me? I wondered. Here I was, a grown woman, still harboring the feelings of a wounded child.
Then one day, I received a call from my stepmother. Dad had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, at age 55. The news took me aback. We hadn’t even seen each other in five years.
Three weeks later, I flew from my home in Boston to visit him in Virginia, and we managed to spend a joyous weekend together. We talked a lot, about my growing up years and how I felt he’d never really loved me. I still remember his look of surprise, “But I did love you, Jane. I’m sorry you didn’t feel that.” Later on, that weekend became a turning point. It’s not that our relationship changed dramatically, it didn’t. More importantly, I changed.
Instead of focusing on what we had lacked, I began to reflect on the gifts my father had given me: a love of travel, intellectual curiosity, the pleasure of good books and music.
I also began to release the old hurts I’d carried around for so long, because I realized I’d made them my burden, and it had become one I’d grown tired of carrying. By letting go, I gained the most precious gift I could have ever hoped to receive from my father. I learned forgiveness.
It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took many years before my feelings of disappointment and hurt ebbed away. But when I reflect on my father today, I realize that’s the ultimate gift I gained in my relationship with him. Not from him, but perhaps because of him. Forgiveness. An act of love instead of duty. So thank you, Dad, and Happy Father’s Day.