Another Father’s Day has come and gone. That used to mean something very different to me than it does now. Before my daughter was born, and certainly before she was diagnosed, Father’s Day meant reflecting on my troubled relationship with my own father. Reflection was, of course, the only option I had, not resolution, since my father died suddenly when I was twenty-two years old, when I was still young and angry and stupid. I never made peace with him, but I guess along the way, I made peace with not making peace. That’s something, I guess.
Now, Father’s Day leads to another kind of reflection. The day arrives, accompanied by all the “All you dads are great!” posts on Facebook and in the popular media. And honestly, I think we mostly are. Fatherhood as a story in this country has slowly been turning around from its Homer Simpsonesque wacky failure narrative to something better, more involved and competent. Stripped of an outdated narrative, we’ve been making our own. It’s slow going, particularly for still mostly invisible fathers of kids with disabilities, but I like to think we’re making some progress.
For me, Father’s Day feels like a moment to stop and reflect on what I’m doing, or more importantly how I’m doing. Perhaps that’s my own father’s legacy, in a way. I don’t know if he ever wondered if he was getting it right with us. If he thought about it, which I suspect he did, in his own way, he would have been faced with the fact that he very much was not. I don’t know if he ever intended to try to make things right. His behavior in his final years suggested that at the very least, he thought he had more time. In the end, he did not; he was dead before he hit the ground, literally, and his legacy was relegated to the unknown, a work in progress that wasn’t really progressing.
I don’t ever want that to be true with me and Schuyler. If I die tomorrow, I know she won’t understand a lot of things, but I also know she won’t wonder if her father loved her. She won’t have the question that I’ve had my whole life, the one that has been unanswerable for twenty-six years now. And for that, I’m grateful. I get lots wrong, but I think I get that part right, and that’s not too bad.
When I look at the work I do, at the life I live as a father, I see a lot that I don’t understand. I don’t always think I’m providing what Schuyler requires, and I don’t feel like I set the kind of example that she needs. She sees a father who has to watch pennies, who raises his voice sometimes, who gets impatient with the world and with her. She observes a father who gets so frustrated with the unfairness of her world that he seems to feel a kind of low-grade anger most of the time, and one who increasingly likes people less and less. I think she sees my fear. I’m pretty sure she understands how terrified I am about so many things, about a future that I can’t see or understand, and about a little monster in her head that continues to cloud her future and whose fang and claw I underestimate at my very foolish peril. I’m afraid sometimes of the father she sees, of the sadness that I try so hard to hide from her and from the world.
I worry about all that, more than you or anyone around me probably understands. But every now and then, Schuyler throws me a bone. She reminds me that there’s more to myself, and to us, and it’s in those moments that I find a kind of grace. It’s taken me a long time to begin to understand what Schuyler needs from me, and I still don’t always get it. I used to think that she needed me to make things better for her, to somehow fix it. I tried, I really tried so hard for so long, advocating hard for her assistive technology and for her public school experience to be inclusive and fair. I like to think I’ve gotten better at knowing when to release the Kraken, and when to just live to fight another day. I’m proud of the work I’ve done and continue to do for her and her friends. I didn’t fix anything, but I think I helped.
I used to think that she needed answers from me. I believed that she needed me to protect her from the hard parts of the world, to burn a path through the weeds for her to walk safely. As her father, of course that’s what I’ll continue to do, for the rest of my life. That’s a dad thing, I think, and even though we’re ultimately destined to fail, we can’t not try. None of us are Atticus Finch, but we all dream about it.
The older I get, the more I understand what I think Schuyler needs from me. People say you shouldn’t be friends with your kids, but that’s not always true, and it’s certainly not for Schuyler. Schuyler doesn’t need answers, which is good because she’s probably never going to get them. She needs people who love her to stand beside her, and to be frustrated along with her, and to share the pain and the joy and the fucked up craziness of life in all its danger and its wonder.
Yesterday morning, Schuyler send me an electronic Father’s Day card that she’d made. Addressed to “Daddyo”, it said simply, “You are the best thing ever when I was sad or frustrated, you always make me laugh and happy.”
That might just be enough.
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