Fathers: You have a child you haven't spoken to in a while? A child you rarely see?
Call them for Father's Day.
I speak to you not as a father myself, but as an expert on fathers. Know how people say, "I come from a family of six children"? I come from a family of six fathers.
I was three when my biological father, Candido, left me. Over the next twenty years, my mother replaced him with five different fathers. I couldn't call these men by their first names nor could I call them stepdads. My mother, Maria, made this clear: They were my fathers—period.
Two had served jail time—one for armed robbery, which sounds pretty badass until you grow up. The other two committed crimes living with us—stealing, petty embezzlement—that could have sent them to jail had they not taken off first. And when I was between fathers, my mother forced me to buy her and my grandmother Father's Day cards because "we were the only fathers you had."
Out of these five replacement dads, one man, Frank, is still a father figure in my life. That is to say, he's my father. Frank dated Maria for three years in the late 1970s but wanted a child long after he stopped wanting my mother. So in between my mother's four other husbands, for close to thirty-five-plus years, Frank stuck around. That's why I still call him "father."
Frank is also a rule follower, though. Because he didn't marry my mother, I think he feels he hasn't earned the right to be called "father." So we both mishandle the word as if it were a hot potato. We can go months without talking and are capable of turning on each other over simple misunderstandings. I forget he's had more opportunities to disappoint me because he's the one who stayed.
Five years ago, I tracked down Candido and maintain a cordial relationship with him, too. He calls me once a year on my birthday. We exchange amateurish hugs whenever I'm in town.
Most of the time this arrangement—having two fathers—works even though I don't have the kind of relationship with either man that, for instance, my girlfriend has with her father, David, who's active and engaged in her life, calls her once a week even if she doesn't call back, is a considerate listener, doesn't judge her or her life choices, and is eager to share both his time and help. But then comes Father's Day, which seems to require a phone call and an actual conversation with both Candido and Frank. And I suddenly have to confront again: How do you navigate such a call when it's fraught with so much unfulfilled expectation and disappointment?
To start: Do you use the word "father"? Using their first name seems detached but I could be overthinking that. Earlier this year, when talking about her dad, Frances Bean Cobain said, "I didn't know Kurt." She sounds so confident just using his first name. I like that she does this. Maybe she's figured out something I haven't.
And then: Who calls whom first? I used to think it was my job, as a son, to call each father on Father's Day, to fumble through an awkward conversation in an overly enthusiastic voice while counting down the seconds until we disconnected for another year. Father's Day was a day to celebrate their accomplishments, wasn't it?
I'll be honest: I wrote this first as an advice column for adults to call their fathers first. But I asked myself: What kind of father would I want to be? A father that expects my child to call me and honor a lifelong commitment that I agreed to make when I created them? Or a father that understands that my child didn't ask to make that commitment, understands that commitment means that a father always goes first?
I realized: A child follows. A father leads.
I know you, the father with the child you don't call, are afraid. You're afraid to face all of the days—hundreds, thousands—you could have been a father but chose not to be. Do you remember what you did in those moments you could have been with your child? Was that drink, or that one-night stand, or that bong hit, worth subtracting a memory from your child? From you? Having six men act as my father, I know the answer is no. You remember the guilt, though.
You're afraid of the anger, too. You know the kind of father you should have been, the kind of Dad you wanted. The kind that took you out to run errands for Mama then detoured for ice cream, letting you drive his '66 Mustang convertible on the empty stretch of road by the river. One hand on the cone, one hand on the wheel. "Just between us, Mom doesn't have to know." You never were that father because you never had the time, or the money, or the energy, or the understanding, so you made promises you never kept instead. Your child still had enough grace to call you father, a word that to them meant "Let's pretend you didn't lie."
You're afraid the same way I'm afraid to be a father because I thought I'd be terrible at it. I thought when it came time to raise my own child, the pieces of what I understood fatherhood to be wouldn't fit together into a coherent whole, like a completed puzzle whose picture doesn't match what's on the box.
Your child doesn't care about this. Your child is capable of an enormous amount of empathy and understanding because even if you are the total antithesis of everything they believe themselves to be, you are still their father. Your child understands your fear. More than you could ever imagine.
Oh, and no greeting cards instead. Don't chicken out with borrowed words.
What should you do if your child doesn't pick up or call back? Do what my biological father did. My first contact with Candido after a thirty-plus-year absence was a phone call. I made him leave three answering machine messages, the only sound being a receiver shoveled from shoulder to shoulder, before I picked up.
"I am the man you are looking for," he said. He didn't—couldn't—say the word father. He, just like Frank, felt he hadn't earned the word, even if he'd never say so. It wasn't what I'd hoped for or wanted. But it was a start. Nothing means more than the promise of a new start.
I'm not expecting my phone will ring on Sunday. But I'm hoping it will. Twice.
I'm hoping your child's will, too.
Good luck with that call. Happy Father's Day, father.
From: Esquire US