To scroll through social media feeds on Father's Day is to encounter post after post celebrating fathers. These posts profess love, gratitude, and admiration for the men who love unconditionally, who offer support and encouragement, and who model the values that shape their children in innumerable and positive ways.
My household is blessed with a father like that.
From the moment he learned that he would be a father, Rob has been there, and even as our daughter begins to venture into the wider world, he is still there for her. I often look at their relationship in wonderment. Do they know just how lucky they are?
They have a comedic banter that is uniquely theirs. Their group texts make me shake my head.
They have been pulling practical jokes on each other since Z was in preschool (and likely even before that). Whenever they run errands together, they blast the Decemberists and Silversun Pickups. They share a mutual zeal for video games and trash-talk each other incessantly while playing.
Granted, their relationship isn't always the stuff of idyllic greeting cards -- it's more of the Shoebox Greetings variety, grounded in directness and laughter. Rob may not always agree with Z, nor she with him, but they always find a way to understand each other, in time.
Not everyone has a father/child relationship like that. Not everyone wakes up on Father's Day and posts laudatory messages about the man who was and is there throughout it all.
Even though my father lives about 25 minutes away, he is, for the most part, a stranger to me. Here is a comprehensive list of how many times we have seen each other in person over the past twenty years: once when I gave birth to my daughter, two decades ago; once in a dentist's office two decades after her birth, when I walked into the waiting room after an appointment only to learn that for the past 30 minutes, he and my daughter had been sitting across each other, completely oblivious to the other's identity; and most recently, at two funerals.
My parents split when I was in high school, after years of my father cheating on my mom and finally getting exposed (by yours truly). My mom really was clueless about the infidelity, despite what some very unhelpful people liked to suggest during the divorce: "How could you not have known?" or "Underneath it all, you had to have known." She really didn't know. Even I was shocked when I found out. He really was that good of an actor, the Leave It to Beaver husband and father.
All of the Judy Blume and Paula Danziger books I read as a kid assured me that even after a divorce, dads still love their kids and will try to maintain relationships with them. Parents get divorced, not children, right? Not so in all cases, I guess.
It took me some time to realize that it was possible that my father didn't ever really love us, that he was just playing a role in accordance with social conventions. It was a revelation to me: he did not and does not love me, not really. Maybe he does in his own way, I have told myself when I have felt the need to explain his absence from my life.
Which brings up something even more difficult to think about: do I love him?
It's a terrible question.
I don't know how to answer it.
Here's where my mind goes when I let myself think about how I feel about him and push past the anger to get to the heart of my feelings: I want to love him. I believe I should. I don't know how. I don't know if it would matter to him. Of course it is what Jesus would do. And the Judy Blume kids.
I can't find peace in that thought process, so I often focus on this instead: maybe instead of loving him, I should work on forgiving him and dealing with what remains of him in my life -- baggage.
Instead of leaving a legacy of love, he left one of mistrust and doubt, which has affected my relationships. Sometimes the effect has been positive -- I really work at relationships that matter to me. Sometimes the effect has been negative -- I worry that my relationships have an expiration date, that the love that I think is real is just a ruse and that I will not realize this until the person leaves my life, which feels inevitable, because someone who I thought loved me once, someone whose job it was to love me, no matter what, left.
He is not a total absentee in that respect, but also in another: today, I have a Facebook father, who sends me simple messages on major holidays -- Merry Christmas, Happy Birthday, and the like. It is something. Not everyone gets to have Social Media Dad.
A few months ago, we thought Hawai'i was under nuclear attack and then learned that it was a false alarm. Not long after that false alarm was declared, a message appeared from my father, one of the longest that he had sent. He talked about his neighbors panicking, about people experiencing anxiety, and though he did not share what he was feeling, he told me to "have a good day!!!"
When we thought it might all be over for us, at least one of his thoughts turned to me, and I am holding on to that.
Maybe we will never be able to rebuild, but we can acknowledge each other, and that is something: you are my daughter, you are my dad. I don't think either of us knows what that means. I don't think we will ever know.
So I woke up today, grabbed my phone from the nightstand, and sent him a Father's Day message. Maybe that reveals the answer to that difficult question: yes, still, even now, yes, inexplicably, bewilderingly, ultimately, yes, in my own way, the only way I know.