Saturday, June 20, 2009

Father's Day Without a Father

My dad was 6' tall & lean, bald with a mustache, a loud laugh & an endless arsenal of bad jokes. He was an aspiring businessman who dropped out of college to support his family & went on to become a star salesman of, I kid you not, golf carts, genuinely charming & befriending everyone he met along the way. And while every little girl thinks her daddy is the most lovable man in the world, I, even now, still truly believe there was no one who met my dad that didn't like him. He worked a lot, but when I was little & an aspiring ballerina, he almost always made time to pick me up from my dance classes, usually stopping along the way at Swenson's, Northeast Ohio's most popular drive-in. He'd get a burger & I'd get a grilled cheese sandwich, & we'd both get sundaes before making our way home.

This past Friday was the 14th anniversary of my dad's death. He'd fought lung cancer for two years, & at age 10, I'd naively thought he was on the road to recovery. I visited him in the hospital on Father's Day 1995, where I made him an ice cream sundae with hot fudge at the sundae bar that the hospital had appropriately set up for the holiday, then I left to go to the lake with friends. The next day, I arrived home early from a sleepover to find my grandma & aunt on our back porch comforting my mother. The summer before I began sixth grade, my father was dead.

I am 24 years old now, & I've given three eulogies; I was recently shocked to learn that one of my bosses, a rabbi, is in his early 30s & has never even given one. The first of my three was for my 45-year-old father, written in rhyming poem form & recited outside on a sunny day in front of family & friends whose attendance I cannot remember. I only remember the other eulogies - one from my uncle, who talked of his friendship with my dad in terms of Sylvester Stallone films, & the other from my mom's best friend's husband, who talked about my dad's firm, memorable handshake. To this day, I strive to make the positive, warm first impression with my handshake that I learned at his funeral that my dad made with his.

There were, of course, times when I was bitter. How can you lose your father at 10 & not be? But it's been 14 years, & I've now been without him longer than I was with him. There have been times when I've even felt lucky to have been the first of my friends to lose a parent - times when I have been able to use my experience to comfort friends as they go through the loss of theirs, when I have wished desperately that they wouldn't have to suffer through what my mom & I did. I think of my dad often, but rarely with too much sadness anymore. Instead, I remember him fondly when I eat Oreos or watch the Indy 500, when I say I hate tomatoes & when I see a Mini Cooper. Of course, I wonder what life would be like had I grown up with him - but then I remember to be thankful for the many, many blessings that have come my way that would not have if he had been present. His headstone now reads "ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS," which he was; lucky for my mom & me, he surrounded himself with good guys, too.

My dad's two best friends are brothers. When he died, they together stepped in to take care of my mom & me the only way they knew how, inviting us to every family reunion, every holiday celebration & every birthday party, adopting us as their own. When I speak about them now, I refer to them as my family - without caveats, unless absolutely necessary. I begged my mom to drive me to the hospital to visit my grandfather before he died of leukemia my sophomore year, & I drove home from college to see my grandmother in hospice care before she did. The first time I every truly cried tears of joy was when I learned that my younger cousin would be receiving his liver transplant, & the first person I called in hysterics when I received my first speeding ticket was my older cousin. They sat with me in the hospital after my back surgery & attended both my high school & college graduation ceremonies. Recently, a little down after spending time with friends & their siblings, I texted my cousin Eric, also an only child, to tell him that the time with them had made me wonder what life would be like with a brother or sister, & that it had made me miss him; he responded immediately to tell me that he loved & missed me. Without blood relation but without explanation or attribution, they are my family. "My dad's side of the family."

Maybe it would not have been this way had my dad been alive. But who can say? The reality is that he is not - but they are. And I am so lucky to have them, both of his best friends & their entire family - my entire family.

So-called "family values" activists claim that children cannot grow up to be happy & healthy unless they have both parents. They say this in reference to same-sex headed families & to parents who divorce, but what message does that send to children like me, the product of single mothers who never intended to be sans husband? I buck at insinuations that children without fathers are doomed to lives of dysfunction & disorder, because I know better. I am both happy & healthy, both normal & responsible - all without a father. I know this is not the case of all children like me, or those of other fatherless circumstances, but as a result of my experiences, I truly believe that the kind of adults that fatherless children grow up to become is not based upon the title of those present in their lives but the love of those present. I may have grown up without a father, but thanks to his two best friends, I never grew up without the love & discipline I needed from father-like figures.

As I
once wrote in a column for my college newspaper (albeit about same-sex headed families, but the sentiment still stands), "Family is composed of the people who care for you the most, who look out for your best interests. That's why so many of us call family friends 'aunt' or 'uncle,' and why so many people don't differentiate between step-relatives and blood relatives. Your family members are the people who love you the most."

This Father's Day, I urge you to think beyond just your father, if you have one. Who are the men that have shaped your life? Don't forget to tell them you love them, too.

Happy Father's Day, Larry & Lanny. Thank you.

10 comments:

Christina Anne said...

Thanks for sharing this, Kate. You inspire me.

Jaime Lynn Barks said...

My father passed away when I was five and i appreciate you addressing the fact that not all children who grow up in a single parent home grow up to be dysfunctional . . . .I think I turned out okay : ).

matureprstudent said...

What a lovely post. Thank you.

Lanny said...

Kate
It's an honor being part of your life.
Love You & miss You
Lanny

LiLu said...

This is beautiful, and a great reminder to be grateful of ALL the men who shape our lives... you don't have to be biological to be a male role model.

Lusty Reader said...

this post was so touching i couldn't respond right away.

so wonderfully well written and evocative, thank you for sharing.

i am adopted and and agree that it's so hard to separate "what if?" like you said, what if you didn't grow so close to your father's friends and create a new family? and i too have struggled with the "Family values" activist statements or how people have expectations for adopted children to have issues.

Fabian said...

Your post is warm and touching, but a few things are worth pointing out. Since I'm one of the "family values" activists you mention, I think it's worth stating that the mere presence of two parents is, in and of itself, not what makes a good family life. The conduct of those people, and the circumstances surrounding their departure is what matters. Your father didn't choose to die when he did, and I'm sure he'd be here today if he could be. He loved and cared for you until he was gone. A father or mother who chooses to leave a marriage for a less than stellar reason, on the other hand, isn't just depriving their child of his presence; he/she is teaching their child that it's ok to quit when things get hard, and it's ok to be selfish and willingly abandon people you claim to love. That is vastly different from the situation of a dying parent, and it usually has a different effect on children. Most divorces are not initiated because of abuse or physical neglect. They're initiated because someone didn't see eye to eye with someone for a long time, and one/both parties decide to give up. It's this act of giving up that has the negative ramifications that have a greater prevalence in children of single parents - educational and developmental problems, propensity for criminal activity, etc. So comparing the situation of a parental death to the one I've described is comparing apples to oranges.

Suburban Sweetheart said...

@Fabian, Thanks for commenting. We have very different views on what divorce means. For the most part, I don't view divorce as giving up. If a couple NOT being together is what makes those two people happier, the likelihood is that they will then also be in a better position to provide their children with the love they need. Unhappy people make for unhappy parents; unhappy parents make for bitter children. Also, by "family values activists," I was primarily referring to those who claim that same-sex couples cannot properly parent children because children need both a mother & a father to be raised correctly. I have just a mom & no dad - how could someone with two moms be worse off than me?! As I said, a family is about love, in whatever form that comes in; "kids need a mom and a dad" is simply untrue, in almost any circumstance. If this messaging would cease to exist, the kids withOUT moms or dads would, I feel, be much less inclined to be ashamed of their families or feel that their families are somehow "off." Traditional is not necessarily best, and the sooner send kids the message that all loving families are good families, the sooner we'll stop alienating children whose families don't match up with the societal ideal - and the sooner they'll accept & love their families, whatever shape they come in.

spleeness said...

I am in tears. This is absolutely beautiful, thank you for sharing.

I'm sorry you lost your dad. At 10 - that is way too young. :( Your dad sounds like a wonderful guy, your whole family sounds sweet. I'm glad you honored his memory on this Father's Day.

Going to go think about those that mean a lot to me now...

Anonymous said...

Kate, this post was fabulous...

I must digress and state that I, too, am a product of a "broken upbringing." Not only did my biological father die when I was 12, but I didn't have the chance to REALLY know him, as I was placed in foster care due to the relationship he and my biological mother had (and then ceased to have). I do know that my father did the hardest thing any parent could do... and that was give up his rights to me, in the hopes that I would be adopted and have a great life.

I will also let you know that after 7.5 years of being bounced around the foster care system, I was adopted at age 8. I was raised by a couple who were in their 60s when I was born... needless to say there was severe discourse... and I practically raised myself.

@Fabian, Your argument, "Most divorces are not initiated because of abuse or physical neglect. They're initiated because someone didn't see eye to eye with someone for a long time, and one/both parties decide to give up. It's this act of giving up that has the negative ramifications that have a greater prevalence in children of single parents - educational and developmental problems, propensity for criminal activity, etc." is the most blatant example of a slippery slope fallacy I do believe I have ever read. I do not understand how one can generalize the hundreds of thousands of people who come from different situations by saying that because a child may come from a single-parent family, they will, in essence, become a menace to society!

I also was plagued by the "what if?". I sought out my past, found it, stared it straight in the face... and was able to then shut the door on it. I found my narcissistic, drug-abusing, biological mother when I was 20 years old, after 17 years of no contact, and I can with much dignity say, "I am SO glad that I grew up in an untraditional way." I doubt that I would still be alive had my father not done what he had to get me away from my mother.

To press on a bit further, I will also add that since the age of 18 (I am now 25), I have been completely independent, self-sufficient, and have had an incredibly rewarding life, thus far. I have traveled the world, I have an amazing career, and am striving to finish my undergrad, and head to law school. I have fabulous friendships, and a fabulous husband... and while I don't have a family of my own to support me, I learned at a young age to support myself. I also have the support of my friends, my husband, and his loving family.

Happy Father's day to all the fathers... <3 whether with us... or not. <3

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