The first time I ever thought of my father as a man, and not just my parent, came a few hours after his death. In one of the many phone calls I picked up that day, my cousin shared with me a past that I never knew my father had. He told me stories about my father's battle with anxiety and alcoholism. One day, while lying on what should have been his deathbed, he promised to never taste another drink. If he wasn't doing it for the loved ones who surrounded him in that moment, he was doing it for the family he would one day have. He kept his word.
I was born not too long after that.
I don't think I will ever forget that phone call. It struck the deepest chord that my father and I ever shared. Up until then, my father (to me) had been a quiet introvert with a fiery temper. When I was a child, I didn't talk much around him and when I was older he didn't talk much around me. We mostly communicated through comfortable silences and explosive arguments. Nothing in between. Knowing about his mental health battles instantly knocked down my walls; the walls that I had built to protect the idea that my father never really loved me. He did. Even before I was born, he did.
For me, Father's Day is the day I revisit some of the most painful moments I shared with my father. The day I wear his shoes. The day I put my own needs aside. The day I forgive; both him, and myself.
It hurt that when I was 16, he never came to bail me out the day I got in trouble with the police. Back then all I could see was a mean, old man. Now I just see a man who hid behind his paralyzing anxiety. Too proud to admit that he just didn't know how to handle the situation. I know this because my own anxiety has made me do things that are far worse than leaving a 16-year-old son to spend the night in a police cell.
Father's Day is a day of holding myself to the same standards that I have set for my father. Did he die knowing that I loved him? Did I show it? Could I have made his life a little easier? What part did I play in making our relationship so complicated?
Relationships are not one-way streets. It takes two, even when it is a father and a son. Part of growing up is realizing that my parents were not robots. They were complex human beings with complex emotions. They were vulnerable. They made mistakes that I later on repeated. They hurt, just like me. They were just as insecure as I am now.
Growing up is taking responsibility for your own relationship with your father. It's respecting his needs in the same way you expect him to respect your own. It's, despite everything that has happened, appreciating the sacrifices he made in the name of your own happiness. Growing up is finding the compassion to understand your father as intimately as you understand yourself.
So please, if you are reading this and your father is still only a phone call away, do me a favor. Ask him these three questions...
What can you tell me, about yourself, that I don't know?
When was the last time I did something that made you proud?
What can I do to make our relationship better?
Those are the questions I'd ask my father if I ever saw him again.
How are you celebrating Father's Day?