I don’t have many memories of my childhood and even fewer ones of my dad. This causes me great concern most days of my life. I wonder why I can’t rattle off the names of my high school teachers or recall summer experiences, learning to drive or my Sweet 16. I know people who can recollect these moments with great clarity and excitement, sometimes even reciting dialogue. When they tell me stories of their youth, pangs of jealousy course through me−not because of the times they’ve had, but because of the memory they have of them.
Father’s Day 2012 is over and I feel the sense of relief I experience every year on the day after. Next year I’ll be certain not to go to my Facebook page so I can avoid seeing photos of dads and the touching, poignant stories about them. Yesterday, at the end of the day, when I was trying to fall asleep but couldn’t, I forced myself to conjure stories of my own. Like Father’s Day circa 1969. I was about five. It was the first Father’s Day I had a gift for my dad. A gift I made. I can still feel the incredible pride I had giving him the custom made cardboard slippers I created by tracing one of his shoes onto the backside of a cereal box and stapling a strip to it so he could slide his foot through.
I remember my dad not being the greatest communicator. In fact, there is no catch phrase I can attribute to him or words of wisdom that he bestowed which will forever be a part of me. I suppose I became accustomed to his quietness and not until I met other fathers did I realize this was a unique characteristic. Even on Sunday afternoons when we’d watch football together, I don’t recall him yelling at the television. This was unique indeed. I have never come to know another man who doesn’t engage in passionate discourse directed at the television. We would sit quietly and watch, and I would sometimes ask him questions about the game. What was a safety or a two point conversion. What was the difference between a fumble and an incomplete pass. I would study his answers and hope that one of these things would happen in the course of the game so I could shout out the play and score points of my own. I’m not sure I ever liked football but I felt a deep satisfaction in sharing something with my father. Like the blue can of Planters Cocktail Peanuts nestled between us on the couch every Sunday. He’d pull the tab off the can and I can still hear the sigh it released, the metal cutting metal as he lifted the seal, and the smell of the peanuts, the feel of the salty glistening residue they left on my fingertips.
My dad was an avid sailor. He loved to sail his catamaran especially in choppy water because of how he could sail it up on one hull. One summer we had news that a big storm was coming and it was recommended that people evacuate coastal areas. It was understood that sailing was not prudent. But the conditions must have seemed too good to pass up for my dad, the wind and the surf. I’m not sure how I ended up being his first mate that day, especially because of my lack of daring. It’s even harder to believe my mother would sanction it. We did sail on one hull that day for a short time before the entire boat flipped over. I don’t recall falling off the boat or the moment we capsized, or any fear. I do remember hanging onto the hull with all my might and kicking like crazy in turbulent water alongside my dad in a steady rain as we tried for hours to get ourselves ashore.
I’ll probably never forget the morning after I graduated high school, my father called me into the living room to tell me he was leaving. Moving out. He said very little to me. I don’t remember an explanation of any sort. I had a sense of his unhappiness and that he was moving away in hopes of restoring any happiness he once had.
After that day, I saw him only a dozen more times. Later that summer he drove me to college and for a few holidays I would see him at my grandmother’s house. He sent me a card at Christmas and for my birthday for several years to come. He always chose cards meant for a little girl, no matter my age. Like my dad, these cards would trail off too. I heard he remarried and moved again, farther away. I recall, when I was a young adult, the painful rumination of why my father chose not to see me or have a relationship with me or my brothers. Why didn’t he want to know what I was doing, who I was becoming? I came to believe that having children was part of his unhappiness.
Many years later I was shopping for a backpack for my son who was entering kindergarten. A music track was running in the store, and the song Cats in the Cradle was playing. This song always reminded me of my father. And it always made me sad. I don’t know if it was because of the boy in the song and how sad I was for him, or how sad I was for me. That day when I heard the song, I knew something terrible had happened. I remember my legs giving in, the need to sit down somewhere, and crying openly. I dropped the backpack and left the store. I was shaking with sorrow though I didn’t know why. Later that day I heard from my aunt that my father had suffered a massive heart attack.
He died a few days later in Florida, a place where his search for happiness had taken him.