Father’s Day Thoughts
Warning: This post is probably as personal and serious as I’m likely to get on here. It won’t be very funny. It will, however, be genuine. You been warned.
Father’s Day is coming up. For many people, it’s a day to give their father a suitably crappy gift and give the old man a hug. I see a lot of ads and sales and heart-warming hey-ain’t-Dad-great stories and I think that’s pretty cool. For a lot of other people, Father’s Day means not much at all. There’s a load of deadbeat dads, kids who don’t have their fathers in their lives, dads who abandoned their kids and whatnot. For some, Father’s Day is a reminder of someone who abused and terrified them. Not such a great place to be.
My own father, as family legend has it, chose my name. He named me after his two favorite people: himself and Joe Namath. I find that tale entirely appropriate and therefore believe it with all my heart. He loved booze (like me!) and wearing awful polyester suits – it was the Seventies after all – and James Taylor. My mother once gleefully jumped up and down on top of his favorite James Taylor record, smashing it to bits. I’m sure he deserved it. Because my father, the man for whom I named, was a horrible person. He used to beat the shit out of my mother. At some point, he was threatened enough by my mother’s family or with the police or something to stop actually hitting her, so he would just yell and spit on her instead. He was a cruel and vicious little shit of a man. He mentally and emotionally abused my brothers and me on a fairly consistent basis. My brothers – especially the oldest – got it a lot worse than me. I was the youngest and therefore the best able to figure out the currents of family emotions and could discern out how best to navigate the dark and troubled waters. I went to bed every night until I was seven years old telling my mother that I loved her less than my father, knowing that it would make him happy. It did.
So I was the favored son of a monstrous human being. I would happily sell out my brothers or mother to stay on his good side. It didn’t always work, but the majority of the time it did. Of course, I even used that to manipulate our other caregivers, like my maternal grandmother who would immediately and instantly blame and punish my middle brother for anything I ever did wrong. I could just cry for no reason and he’d get swatted with a wooden kitchen spoon. I hope I didn’t abuse that power too much, but I know I did from time to time. Little wonder why he ended up chasing me around the house one day with a kitchen knife. I’ve carried a lot of guilt around over the years over it. I’m better now, because I understand that it wasn’t completely my fault.
My father controlled our lives. My blog of terrible advice for parenting from yesterday is, as rightfully pointed out by my oldest brother, a pretty close description of how we were actually raised, minus any mention of “making sure your kids know you love them”. We were incredibly well-behaved children in public, because we were completely and utterly terrified of what our insane father might do to us. I remember watching him with my oldest brother in the garage. I don’t remember what egregious offense my then-eleven- or twelve- or thirteen-year-old brother committed – forgot to take out the garbage? Failed to prevent one of his younger brothers from doing something stupid? – but there they were, standing by a garbage can, with my brother’s stack of record albums. One by one, my father would ask my brother if he liked that particular record. My brother, whose main passion in life was and is music, would answer in the affirmative. My father would then emphatically hurl that record into the trash and move onto the next. That’s the kind of guy he was. Another time, my oldest brother had just gotten permission to play football – extracurricular activities that did not involve being a Jehovah’s Witness just didn’t happen much – and was uber-excited, since football was and is also a big part of our lives. He was playing baseball in the front yard with friends. He was batting. I, being a young dumbass, walked behind him as he swung and ended up with a nifty scar and lump on my forehead that is still visible to this day. My brother tried to get me to stop crying, knowing it would end up bad, but no luck. Any dreams he had of playing football were gone, just like that.
There’s more stories, of course, most of them way worse, but that’s enough. He was the kind of guy that everyone who didn’t actually know him well thought was a great guy, charming, funny, sweet, a great father figure, the whole nine. He was a tremendously awful human being. I’ve said something often enough over the years, and I believe it to be true, that the greatest thing my father ever did for me, my mother, and my brothers, was shoot himself when I was seven years old. For all the talk about how selfish suicide can be, it’s probably the least selfish thing the man ever did for us. Good riddance.
So Father’s Day inevitably makes me think of the man I’m named after, but not for too long because he doesn’t really deserve it all that much. Instead, I tend to think about the people who are NOT my father, those people who became my father figures, the men who became my role models and the people I looked up to and wanted to emulate and learned what it was to be a man. It’s those people I think of and cherish, even if it’s only inside my head and heart and doesn’t come with a card. I think a lot of us, those whose fathers let them down or scarred them or abused them or generally acted in every way as the opposite of a caregiver, do the same thing. Maybe it’s a beloved grandfather who picked up the pieces and became a rock and a confidant and a teacher. Maybe it’s an uncle or family friend or someone else. I tend to believe that when Father’s Day rolls around, a lot of us at the very least think about the people who filled that void.
For me, I think first and foremost about my oldest brother. I’ve looked up to him for as long as I can remember. His approval or smile or laugh was the biggest reward I could hope for as a kid, and even now it brings me a tremendous amount of happiness to know I can make him laugh. I think it’s because laughter wasn’t exactly in common supply around the house when we were young. It makes him shake his head every time I tell him that he has always been a role model for me, because he’s not exactly a, shall we say, typical American man’s man. Whatever. My hippy Deadhead brother with the anger management issues is the guy I’ve always looked up to. So Happy Father’s Day, bro. I can’t thank you enough for helping me be the man I am today.
Most of my other father figures never existed, not in a real world sense. My stepfather was a piece of shit. My mother’s family was full of smug lying asses who didn’t give a flying fuck about us, or who abandoned us when my mother decided that being a Jehovah’s Witness was a really shitty way to go through life (thanks, Uncle Ed!). I learned the way a man should be through – shudder – TV, movies, and books. No wonder I’m such a terrible person. James Bond. Richard Dawson (may you rest not in peace but in full hell-raising mode, big drink in your hand and a cigar). Aragorn. Joe Theismann. Conan the Barbarian. Captain America. These were the men I wanted to be.
My god, it’s a wonder I can function at all.
So, yeah, my choices weren’t the kind of people who taught me how to use power tools or fix a car or hunt or fish or build things with wood. I had to learn all of that on my own. Some I’ve learned, some I haven’t. But I like to think that I did learn some good things from those men, real or not. I’m happy with who I am. I have a wife that loves me dearly. I have friends that I would do anything for. I’m lucky in every way. So I say Happy Father’s Day to Thor and Cap and Killian (who loves you and who do you LOVE?!) and Strider and Bilbo and Joey Sunshine and Mister Bond and the Professor on Gilligan’s Island and Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers and Stan Lee and my brothers and every single male I’ve encountered who helped me not be an abusive bitter little fuckstick of a human being, like my best friend Jimmy (he’ll always be Jimmy to me, and I’ll always be A.J. to him. The way it should be.). You guys did an awesome job, and I love you all.
So hey, if the person who provided half of your genetic material wasn’t a true father to you, I urge you to find one of those people who stepped in and helped you become a better person and tell them, from the bottom of your heart, that you couldn’t have done it without them. They don’t have to be male, or real for that matter. Say it in your head if that’s all you can do.
Oh, and one last thing: Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers out there that love your kids, take care of them, raise them as best you can, and make their lives better. You deserve it. Just as long as you keep them away from me when they’re young.