I walk past the large display of Fathers' Day cards in the store, not even stopping to browse, to find the perfect card to send to a father. A twinge of sadness stings my gut, bringing back that old feeling, a mixture of grief, loss, and an emptiness that can't be filled.
The greeting card companies and the TV ads tell me I'm supposed to make Fathers' Day a special day for my dad.. But, they're missing the point, and they sure don't understand my life and how I think about Fathers' Day.
Dad has been gone for most of my life. And even when he was around and I got him a card, he'd just nod, barely saying the "thank you" I'd been craving. My step dad has been gone a long time, too. I knew he liked my cards. He'd smile and give me a hearty handshake. We knew where we stood with each other.We just didn't say them. Talking about love and fathering wasn't part of our conversations. But, we knew. And, that was enough for me.
My father in law liked my cards, too. He's chuckle and laugh, and there'd be a twinkle in his eye. He got a lot of attention on Fathers' Day, and he knew he was loved. He gave it back, too. In spades.
This is the second year without him, and the emptiness inside of me as I look at all the choices on the card rack gets a bit deeper with me.
I'm on the other side of the coin now. I have a bunch of sons. My step son and I are close, even though he's about six hundred miles away. We can share our love easily, with just a smile, a joke, or something funny we e-mail to each other. We still joke with each other, still playing pranks on each other with a silly plastic lobster. A few weeks ago, I found Mr. Lobster, again, and he starred in my movie, the one I made on my iPad, and sent to my 42 year old son.
A few hours later, my son sends me an e-mail. He's in hysterics over my three minute movie, and invites me to share it with the rest of the family. I'm not sure he thought I would, but I did, showing him I, too, can make my way around You Tube, and make some jokes again, with Mr. Lobster.
One of my foster sons flies his paraglider way up in the air, sending me videos once in a while, looking down at the far away ground, or a jet liner flying under him. He knows I'm scared of heights, and I worry about him jumping off cliffs and flying high in the air, turning summersaults and making loops. I know he's laughing every time he sends me his latest aerial adventures. It's his way of saying he loves me, that he's doing just fine.
I have other sons now, too, the young guys I mentor in prison, and some of the other guys there, too. The young man who makes the coffee drinks at the prison canteen on visiting days knows my usual order, and gets it started the moment I walk in the door. Other guys show me their art work, or tell me about doing well on a test, or moving ahead in their treatment. I get a lot of "Hi, Neal"s when I show up on their special days, or sit in on one of their activities, being a dad in their lives.
Their own dads don't show up much, if at all. So, I like to give them a smile and a handshake, just to say hi, just to say that they are important.
I don't find the "sons" section in the Fathers' Day cards. There are the golfing joke ones, the religious ones, the silly ones, even the stepdad ones now. But, there aren't any cards that say what I want to say, "Good job, son. Thanks for being the son. Without the son, there'd be no Fathers' Day."
"I'm proud of who you are, what you've become."
That's what this day is really about, sons and daughters. The dad takes on the job of helping to raise the child, to teach, to listen, to wipe snotty noses and change dirty diapers, and help them with their homework. And, to listen and counsel, and show them, by example, how it is to be a man, to move along in the world, being healthy, and wise.
I don't have daughters, but I know they're watching their dads, too.
"How are you at this man stuff? How do I live with you? What kind of man do I want in my life? And, while you are at it, teach me about trust."
It is the biggest job I've ever had. A lot of teaching of respect, and capability, and a lot of unconditional love.
We're supposed to show them what love is all about. And, respect. And, compassion and learning about this crazy world.
Being a dad is really learning how to be a good example, to be watched, and judged.
"How ARE you doing as a man?"
"Show me. But, I expect you to do it right."
No pressure there!
And, by the way, the manual on all this stuff is out of print, and I can't find an old copy on Amazon.
We're the guys that wait by the door at night, making sure they get home safe from that party, or that big date. We're there to listen, to nod, to simply be there, keeping the porch light burning, to be the guy who cares that they do have a home to come back to, after a day of being a teenager in a harsh, often indifferent, cruel world.
We give the hugs, wipe the tears, and look them in the eye, quietly telling them we believe in them. All things are possible. And, they are loved.
Such simple things we do. But, when that simple stuff gets neglected, or no guy is behind the front door when they do come home late at night, then all hell can break loose, and their fragile ships at sea too often crash onto the reefs and sink in the storms.
And, we're the guys that haul the laundry sack to the laundry room, when they come home for the weekend. And, we fire up the barbecue, and cook their favorite foods, letting them hang out with their old friends. We often take a back seat then, letting them visit and laugh with their friends, as we flip the burgers, and get more potato salad out of the frig.
There will come the time when they'll sit down with us on the couch, after the party, and after a long day at the beach with their friends. Then, they'll talk, a bit shy at first, then going deep, talking about the serious questions of life that a young man has, once they get out in the world, and have to deal with all of life's adult problems and worries.
Then, we listen, and we listen hard. Sometimes, they ask for advice, but mainly, they just want to talk, to show you they are doing OK, that they learned a lot from you about life, that they are doing pretty good at it.
And, we let them know, right back at them, that they're doing a good job, and they we believe in them, and take pride in who they are becoming.
It's pretty easy to sit there and listen, and to nod, to say a few words of encouragement.
You see, fatherhood is a whole bunch of just showing up, just being present in someone's life.
You don't need to give them your DNA, but you do need to give them your time, and your love. That's fatherhood. That's being a real man.
The good work comes in just answering the phone, or texting something sweet back, in the middle of the night, letting them know you are around, that you care.
I get my thanks, then, for being the dad. I get that when they don't call for a couple of weeks at a time. I know they are fine, they are making their way, needing their independence, flexing their big boy muscles and making their way through life.
Someday, Hallmark might figure it out, and start selling "I love my kids" cards for Fathers' Day. But, until they do, I'll just keep on doing what I do best, loving all my kids with all my heart, and telling them, every chance I get, that I love them.
June 11, 2013