Father’s Day: forgiveness not required

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

The company line around our house from my mother was though my father was absent, he loved me, and it was his troubled nature that kept him away. I believed her, and it helped to shore up what I now know to be grief over that missing piece of our family.

But was it true?

My father left before I was 2. When we reunited in 1992, he was 50 and I was 28. It was as if I was meeting him for the first time.

We got to know each other over the next 10 years. Once or twice the conversation turned to his long absence, but it didn’t go deep. We’d have time for that, I thought. But in spring 2002 he broke his foot, went to hospital, and got a surprise cancer diagnosis. He was gone less than two months later.

And now 22 years later I wonder about that company line.

The math is brutal. Mom had told me dad was using heroin, she wouldn’t have it, and he did the right thing and left. He was 24, and spent many of the intervening 26 years in jail, primarily for bank robbery. I have to guess he was not in prime fatherhood shape when he wasn’t locked up either.

With all the time that’s gone by now there’s space in my heart for the possibility that the tidy resolution of that company line was only a kindness, a coping mechanism mom devised to mask her ex-husband’s lack of enthusiasm for fatherhood. It certainly made it easier for her to explain why our family was different. For most of the years he was AWOL I was comforted in knowing dad left because he had a disease.

The flipside of the company line is much darker: Maybe he just wasn’t interested. Maybe fatherhood wasn’t something he thought about at all.

Father’s Day, like it always does, gets me to thinking about him. I usually grieve for all he and I missed. But this recent epiphany has me thinking differently, and it’s been strangely liberating.

Aging has made a few things clear. The most useful realization has been the past is gone, the future is unwritten (thanks, Joe Strummer), and all we truly have is now. I strive to keep this front of mind these days. I don’t always succeed; I get trapped in the twin loops of life bustle and replaying past mistakes and lose it in the disorienting fog of everyday struggle. Ruminating on my failures is a self-defeating dead end. Work, politics, striving for approval, these things are not who I am. Being present in the moment and fully engaged with my family and actual life, that’s where it’s at. That’s the sweet spot.

All this leads me to that company line my mother — just 23 at the time — devised for me. I’ve had time to think on it, and it was such a genius idea to plant in the brain of a 2 year old. It was a kindness that both staved off what might have become a roiling hatred for my father, and made the fact that he was absent easily digestible. Brilliant.

It’s not that I didn’t wonder, and, early on, pine. When I was about 6 we lived in San Marcos, in San Diego County, in a somewhat rural setting. I remember wishing my dad would one day pull up the long dirt road to our house. I’d never seen a photo of him, so I pictured him a tall, swaggering man’s man. It turned out I wasn’t wrong about that projection. But he never did, and at some point I resigned myself to the fact that he was in the breeze.

I never heard a word about him until I decided to seek him out when I was 28. It was shocking how easy he was to find. Also surprising was how easily we snapped into sync and before long were enjoying each other’s company. There’s something to be said for genetics. Though we never had the ease and familiarity I had with my mother or the rest of my family, it was something, and I was grateful.

I don’t need to forgive my father because I have nothing but love and gratitude in my heart for him. He did the best he could. Yes, I’ve mourned for all he missed in those 26 years away, but that’s only me overlaying how I’d feel if I were him. I’m not. He may have never looked back, had a wonderful sort of outlaw life, and died without regret. I hope that’s true.

On Sunday I’ll be with my kids, who will fill my heart with gratitude. When dinner’s over and things get quiet, I’ll likely spend some time thinking about my father. It’s strange to have a new perspective on him 22 years after he checked out, but it’s also been purifying to see him in what in all likelihood is the truest light. He was flawed, as we all are. He made a choice as a very young man that fatherhood was not for him. And it turns out — thanks to a very kind white lie — that was fine. We were okay. He was a good dad in the end, as good as he knew how to be.


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