Remembering Fathers

Love DadI don’t have many memories of my father, but I remember like it was yesterday how he said he was going out to see a man about a dog and never came back. I was six years old. The only time I heard from him again was when he sent me a postcard to say I was now the man of the house and should take care of my mum, the way he knew I would.

For the rest of my childhood, I held onto that tiny postcard and slept with it under my pillow. I played a movie inside my head in which my dad had taken passage on a boat from England to America where he was making his fortune. Soon, he would return and we would eat chicken everyday and drink lemonade, even if we were not thirsty. He would hug me and give the greatest gift of all – his smile and praise for being his boy.

But I would not see my father again until I was a young man. He cried when we met and I wondered about all the adventures he had had without me. We were strangers with no shared memories beyond him joking that he wanted some of my hair because all of his had fallen out.

And then, by some hideous twist of fate, he died on my birthday. It seemed like a tortured final gift from someone who had never sent gifts for any birthday before. He died alone and in poverty. There was no adventure in America, no fortune, no lemonade. Any chance for us to know each other as men was gone forever.

But I have no time for pity parties. I found ambition from my father’s absence. The same movie that he should have starred in became my movie and I came to America to find my fortune. The memories that I should have had as a boy became the memories I made as a father to my own children.

Now, my youngest daughter is six years old and I cannot imagine abandoning the memories of her upbringing to a stranger. I cannot imagine the emptiness of losing a thousand moments of joy that are made just by coming home and having her leap into my arms. And I cannot imagine the loss that a man must feel when he realizes it is all too late because the child he could have known is grown and the beautiful age of innocence is lost forever.

Fatherhood lives in shared memories. It is the movie that is the life of our families. It is our authentic, unique existence.

Around the world, we are celebrating our fathers and being a father. We celebrate fatherhood because it is the greatest gift a man will ever know. And as we stare into the loving eyes of our children, we have our own precious sense of immortality.

And no one can take that away.

Judgment

124618482I now know something. We judge ourselves through the eyes of others. And we learn most of those judgments in our childhoods. There are negative and positive judgments. But there is one judgment that I never received. The judgment of my father.

He did send me a postcard a few months after he abandoned us. He said I was now the man of the house and I should take care of my Mum. I was seven years old when I received that postcard and I still have it with me to this day.

That’s why I take care of people. My Dad told me to do it. But there is something else. He was never there to say I was doing a good job. He wasn’t there to tell me how proud he was of all the things I was doing to help my Mum. Like that time I planted sunflower seeds in the backyard so that their golden color would remind her of the sun and she wouldn’t be so sad anymore. But I forgot to water them and they died.

Or that time I tried to hatch the eggs from the pantry into chickens so that we could have eggs every day for breakfast and never be hungry again. I put them in my cowboy hat and wrapped them in Nana’s tartan scarf, the one with the tassels. Of course, they never hatched.

I met my Dad again when I was a man but it was too late. I was committed to a life of helping people and never to be praised by the one person who told me to do it. My father.

He cried to see the man who he last saw as a small boy. I wanted to cry too but I couldn’t because he was a stranger. But he was a stranger with a familiar face. A stranger who was inside my head but could never say anything about the things I did for my Mum.

Some of the most ambitious people on this planet are driven by the need for praise from the one person who will never give it. For some, it is a person who simply cannot or will not praise them. For others, like me, it is the praise of someone who is not there to give it.

So, we judge ourselves through the eyes of others. And I will never know the judgment of my father, even though he is still here inside my head.

My father died on my twenty-third birthday, destitute and alone. Perhaps one day I will see him again. Maybe he will know by then all the ways I tried to help as a boy.

And maybe we will look together at that postcard and agree that I did what he asked. As the man of the house, I took care of my Mum.

An Angel

124457359We had a window in our bedroom but no curtains and Dad said that was so we could watch the moon and the stars at night and dream of Heaven.  I liked to dream of Heaven but mostly I dreamed about the thing in the corner of the dark cellar and the horror of the people who knocked inside my bedroom wall, always waiting for someone to die.

My sister dreamed about the baby Jesus because she held him when she was Mary in the Nativity Play. They put a blue scarf around her head and she looked so much like Mary that we all wanted to touch her. Some of the other girls cried to be so close to the Holy Mother, even though it was really my sister.

I wanted to be Joseph or a lamb but I had to be Wee Willy Winky with a candle to light you to bed.  Our school teacher put me in a man’s shirt for a nightshirt and it was obviously a very stupid thing to do because I was only six years old and it was far too long. So it was no surprise when I tripped on it and fell off the stage into the audience.  And it was a real candle with a real flame. I was not badly burned, mostly because I fell on the flame and the shirt smothered it.

“And that is why you must never, ever play with matches and candles,” our teacher said.

Dad told us that if we stared long enough at the night sky, we might see an angel. And that angel might come down and bless us and that would be the most wondrous thing we will ever know because an angel is a messenger of God.

So I stared and stared at that dark night sky. And one night, I saw an angel. I knew it had to be an angel because Daddy said they shine with the most beautiful Heavenly light and you will feel warm inside, warm like a cup of hot chocolate in your tummy. It was a light like I had never seen before and I felt the wonderful warmth.

And in the morning, when I told my Mum that I had seen an angel she laughed. She said next time I should make a wish and maybe I should wish for my Dad to come home because he had been missing for three days. So I wished.

My big sister flicked my ear and said it wasn’t a real angel, it was just a star. And she said anyway, wishes never come true. But I still wished. And I knew that no one could take away that feeling of seeing an angel.

So I wished and wished for my Daddy to come home. He never did. But I had seen an angel and the warmth of the angel was still inside me.

And I knew it would stay forever.

A Father

147028685It wasn’t until I became a father that I realized something. I didn’t know what fathers do.

I’m not talking about changing a baby or feeding her. I mean to understand the role of a father, the relationship he has with his precious little girl who looks up to him for acknowledgment, for encouragement and for simple gestures of love. To know what to do, from the experience of being loved and cherished and praised by your own father.

I was six years old when our father abandoned us. He said he was going out to see a man about a dog and never came back. It’s not like he had been around much up to that point but without a Dad, I would never know what fathers do.

So I learned how to be a father as I went along.

I put my little girl’s dolls house together the night before her birthday and my fingers trembled as I placed the miniature furniture and people in the rooms. I bolted the training wheels onto her pink bicycle on Christmas Eve and stood it by the tree. And my heart burst with joy when she shrieked with delight on Christmas morning because Santa Claus had been in the night. I went to her Nativity Play and watched her from the front row, nervously being encouraged by her teacher to say her lines as a baby Angel of God. And I cried.

I held the book as she spelled out the big words, learning to read. And tucked her into bed after a tale from Beatrix Potter and kissed her softly on her tiny cheek. I promised her that I would fight any ghosts or monsters that came into her room in the night, because Daddy is strong.

I held her hand when we walked to the store together and she hid behind me when a stranger asked her name. I said she could have some chocolate, just this once, but don’t tell Mummy.

And when I came back from long trips away from home, I would meet her from playschool as a surprise. She would scream for me to pick her up so she could show off to her friends that this was her Daddy. And soon we would be home and I would swing her around and around, dancing to the sound of our own laughter, until we fell over. Her, with a soft landing on her Daddy.

I took her to the park and pushed her with endless enthusiasm on the swings. I ran to her when she bumped her head on the climbing frame, crying for her Daddy to come and hold her. I kissed her to make the pain go away and swathed her in my arms.

I whispered into her ear that she was Daddy’s girl and would always be his girl. I loved her with all the love I knew, my dearest baby angel.

And I hoped that I had done what fathers do.

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