Father’s Day is packed with meaning

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

I met my father when I was 28. More accurately, I remember meeting him at that age, as he had split when I was a year old, never to return.

Raised by my strong, fun, capable single mother, I was more than fine; I had a wonderful childhood and never felt anything other than safe and loved.

My grandfather took up the slack for my absent dad, which was a monumentally lucky break. He was a kind, generous, thoughtful man. He taught me to be gentle with people, especially your children, to assume the best, and help out where I could.

Realizing our situation was unique, I eventually took to celebrating Father’s Day by acknowledging both grandpa and mom. I especially loved giving mom both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards and gifts. After all, she was doing both jobs.

Though technically fatherless, I cruised through childhood mostly unscathed by feelings of abandonment or longing. I had mom, my grandparents, and a close extended family of cousins, aunts, and uncles. All was well and to be honest, when I saw what some of my friends’ dads were like, I felt grateful for my unconventional but stable arrangement.

This isn’t to say there weren’t times when I felt the absence. There were. The intense male energy of 1970s Little League, and later when puberty hit and all hell broke loose in my mind and body both come to mind. But these were exceptions to an otherwise storybook childhood in the middle-class cocoon (for better or worse) of Glendora.

I probably asked mom about my father less than 10 times over those years, but not because it was taboo: I just didn’t feel the need. I was good. We were good. But though she had also been abandoned — there was no help from dad, ever, not with childcare, child or spousal support, and no contact with his family either for that matter — mom never once took the opportunity to badmouth him. In fact, on those rare occasions we spoke of him she always said the same thing: “Your father loved you very much.” It was the perfect thing to say to a child.

Fast-forward through an extended adolescence spent half-heartedly attempting a career in music, I was suddenly 25 years old and married with a four-year-old daughter.

Thankfully, helping to raise a child got me outside of my self-possession for the first time. Not a lot, but some. And as the milestones passed — preschool, kindergarten, first trip to Disneyland, etc. — I began noticing how lucky I was to have been there. Also for the first time I thought about how my father missed all this stuff. What a drag for him, I thought.

Soon I found myself wondering about him. Was he even alive? I assumed so, but I’d never heard a peep from him, so who knew? Perhaps it was time to find out.

It took months to screw up the courage. I wasn’t informed or brave enough to talk to anyone about this interior dialog, so it just roiled around inside me. Would this be a mistake? What if he doesn’t want to see me? What if he’s dead?

In the end I came to realize I was for the first time in my life at a crossroads, and that if I didn’t act, I would regret it forever.

I had no leads. I did know my paternal uncle, a doctor in Glendora who had been my pediatrician was still around, so I made an appointment to see him. After some catching up I got to the point: did he knew where I could find my father? He didn’t, but said he’d put the feelers out.

A week later I got a call. He was indeed alive and wanted to see me. He and mom then arranged for us all to meet at her house a few days later.

I felt exhilarated, odd, nervous. What if we didn’t hit it off? I’d never even seen a photo of him. What would he look like? Me? All these thoughts and dozens more cycled through my mind in the days leading up to the reunion.

The night I met my father I walked into my mom’s house and there he was, sitting in my favorite chair. He stood up — about the same height, mostly bald (little did I know what was in store for me!), and oddly familiar — and we hugged. There were smiles and awkward laughter, but no tears.

An unexpected feeling of relief came over me in the weeks that followed. It was as if I’d pushed a huge stone to the top of a hill, watched it tumble down the other side, and was now free of its burden, though I’d been unaware I was carrying it at all until it was gone.

Dad and I became close over the next decade. My first Father’s Day with him was a new kind of joy. I felt a new stillness in my life.

His life, I came to learn, had been tumultuous yet simple, and ultimately sad. I’ll write about that another time. I never really got a full accounting of why he stayed away so long. I got enough though, enough to forgive, move on, and enjoy the time we had.

Dad died in early August 2002, two weeks after greeting his granddaughter Grace just minutes after she was born. He was 60 years old. We’d had 10 years together.

My life’s greatest gift has been the 12 years I spent as stay-at-home dad to my three youngest children. I was there for their first steps and words, I shepherded them to and from schools and doctors’ appointments, read to them, fed them, and taught them. I can’t count how many times over those years I thought of my dad and all he missed.

This Father’s Day I’ll reflect, as always, on the men — and the woman — who showed me how to do it. I’ll try not to linger too long on what dad missed; I’ll remember grandpa with fondness and admiration; and I’ll continue to marvel at my mom’s loving tenacity and dedication in going at it alone in an era when single mothers were looked down upon in ways we can’t imagine today.

I’ll be 60 in November. That number looms pretty large considering where my father stepped off the train. And though my fatherhood journey has been marked by both exhilaration and deep heartbreak, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, or ever will. I am enormously grateful to be here, present, helping out where I can.


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