My wife took me to breakfast with our two surrogate children, Odysseus and Penelope, bright and early this morning. She found a dog friendly restaurant in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, where we are hiding out for a long weekend. She said breakfast out was the dogs’ idea, a father’s day treat. Penny and Ody lay by my side, one to my left, the other to my right, as I ate a king’s breakfast on a bright sunny patio.
Our three two-legged children are spread far and wide. Two are on the west coast; the third is in New York City. I suspect during the course of the day each will call to mumble a word of two. I will awkwardly mumble something back. Father’s day has always seemed a bit contrived to me.
That may be because I’ve never made a father’s day call myself. My father went missing when I was eight. When he re-emerged some forty years later, it was just too awkward to pretend that there was a great well of sentiment on tap to make a call seem real. When he died, I crashed his funeral, to the surprise of the distant members of his new family who hadn’t been informed that I exist.
Fatherhood is a confusing sort of passion.
My wife keeps reminding me that our children never stop needing me. I marvel when she says that. I wandered out the door of my mother’s home when I had just turned seventeen, never to return for anything but brief visits. When my father left, he seemed to take a part of my mother with him. Home was a place to sleep and sometimes eat. I sought nourishment elsewhere.
Today I watched a father and son head off to breakfast together. Alone. They resembled one another, the lines of the son filled out in the form of the older man. They were stealing a moment from time. Looking at the men reminded me that time always wins. I feel its weight pressing down on me, and I don’t like the sense of it.
I’ve been meaning for the longest time to take a quiet trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, where my father is buried. When last I saw any sign of him, he was being lowered into a deep hole. I threw a clod of dirt onto the box in which his body lay. I cried not so much for the loss of him at that moment, but for the loss of him over the long decades in which I needed him. He told me he had always loved me when we were reunited; they seemed like hollow words. He did not love me enough to be there when I needed him.
I worry my children can with justification say they same thing of me. I did a better job of being physically present than my father did. But I am his son, a reckless wanderer not faithful enough, not present enough, to cherish all the love that has caught me time and again by surprise. I’ve been given more than I deserve, and I have often lacked the sense to be grateful.
I’d like to sit by my father’s grave and see if I can summon his spirit. I’d like to know why he left me, why he thought it all right to break my heart, and then to attempt a return as though I’d kept a room for him in my heart long after all hope of every seeing him again brought the house of my soul to ruin. His was a shifty sort of soul; he found peace late in life with a new woman, and a new sense of place in a part of the country I cannot call home.
I am a father today and every day. Three children look to me much as I looked for my father. I sit and fret that I am not capable of rising to the task. I want to run lest they see how bare is my cupboard. I offer all that I have and it never seems enough.
My dogs seem to know this about me. They are border collies. I am their life’s work, and they herd me incessantly, never letting me out of their sight, and always vigilant lest I lose my way. I suppose I needed dogs this intense to keep from losing my way. They offer all they have to me every day, and although they lack words, their presence speaks a comforting language. I learn from them how simply to be present. When words fail, it is, I hope, enough, merely to be present and vigilant. I am present today, on this hallmark holiday. I am a father reminded that love is all there is.
Happy father’s day to all.