I’ve hated Father’s Day for a long time, but in my defense, I had a really good reason.
In my experience, the LDS Father’s Day experience, whether you’re actually a father or not, is pretty constant. The Sacrament Service is an hour or so of talks where folks pontificate about their own wonderful fathers, no doubt a square-jawed, outwardly righteous, professionally successful patriarch. Everyone’s dad camped with them regularly, served in some important church calling, taught them sensible home repair, and remain a trusted and valuable friend. In the event that a speaker does not have a father that satisfies those buckets, invariably they are married to somebody who is that kind of father now. Very rarely, a cursory glance is given to the scriptures.
Then, we go to an hour of Sunday School which may or may not include another helping of Dad Brags, followed by an adjournment to Priesthood, where us men enjoy some sort of baked good made by the women of the ward, and a final hour of lessons extolling the value of the Conventional Familial Patriarch. May his excellent hair rule forever and ever, amen.
I would then choke down my dessert, and retire to my apartment, where I would cry bitterly for the rest of the day.
I didn’t have that dad. My father, whose life was wracked by numerous mental illnesses, stopped being the Grown Up in my life around the time I started 8th grade. He committed suicide when I was 19, just as I was preparing to leave the Missionary Training Center, ostensibly to then embark on a two year journey where I would then tell strangers that my church would bless their family.
There is no good location to hear that your father has passed away, but the halls of the MTC are perhaps exceptionally cruel. I had to fight church administrators, one who tried to use Matthew 8:21-22 as a justification for me not returning to Ohio to bury my father (And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.), or other purportedly well-meaning instructors infer that my father had forfeit his ability to see us in heaven (if he wasn’t flat out in hell). The President of the MTC instructed me that if I did return to the funeral, that I not hug anybody, lest I fall into temptation. When I should have been around loved ones, I sat in a bunkbed, surrounded by concrete walls and strangers who didn’t even know my real first name, and wept into the night.
I flew home for that funeral. And somehow, I put that name tag on and went back to California. Later, after a serious leg injury, I would go home, and tried to repair my life.
But there wasn’t really a clear cut way to do that. It wasn’t like my father and I had a wonderful relationship that was cut short by say, a car crash, or a failed but noble battle with cancer. He shot himself, and that was after multiple hospitalizations, and years of estrangement brought on by his erratic and even occasionally abusive behavior. That isn’t something you typically talk about, even with close friends. If a stranger asks about your dad, and you mention that he passed away, what do you say to somebody when they say, How? Make something up? That’s some heavy shit to drop on an acquaintance. Heck, I think I dated a girl for over four months without ever telling her what happened to my dad.
It was a touchy subject even among people I was close to, especially those at church. My dad’s death was a difficult reminder that constant prayer and righteousness can’t heal everything, and that my life experience seemed to stand as a compelling counterpoint to the idea that missionary service always blessed families. The idea of mental illness at all was still very taboo among Mormons, and it was easier to simply assume that my dad had simply made poor choices (which hey, he did), or was unable to address certain weaknesses, rather than admit the stubborn fact that he was very sick, hurt a lot of people, and it wasn’t necessarily anyone’s fault.
So, like a good Midwesterner and Mormon, I basically just tried to ignore it, and if that was impossible, to smother the subject with jokes and self-depreciation until it too died. With a few exceptions, this approach actually worked out pretty well, but it was impossible to keep my own father away from Father’s Day, from the trumpeting of the traditional man at church, to the LOVE U DAD Facebook Statuses, to the commercials, and on that one day of the year, that anger, that bitterness, that longing, towards God, Salt Lake, my old man, and anybody else, would rush forth and not be denied. And man, that fucking sucked.
That pain got a little more dull every year though, as the complicated memories of my dad were compressed and squished until they could start to fit into a tiny box in my memory that I would simply decide not to open, save for a few relatively harmless anecdotes. I could shove that box into the attic of my mind, and then continue being an outwardly happy and normal person.
But life’s changes have a way of rearranging all of those carefully laid boxes. Last August, my wife and I had a baby. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned already, it’s that babies will always mess up your stuff.
The Correct Mormon Answer would be for me to say that I’ve always wanted to have children, ideally lots of them, and quickly after I was married, and that that my capacity to be the kind of father figure that we brag about on Father’s Day Sunday would never be in doubt. But that would be an outrageous lie.
I did want to have children, but I was also terrified, both at the specific timing, and the general concept. I knew that there probably wasn’t a perfect time to have children, but I suspected that right before we were able to move from Chicago to Washington D.C. so I could take a highly competitive and very demanding job was probably an especially bad time. I worried that being a young father would hurt me at work (and this proved to almost certainly be true), or that we hadn’t been married long enough, or shit, I could barely take care of a Tamagotchi for three days without it dying in a screenful of digital poop. Most importantly though, I worried about my own abilities as a father. Would I be able to avoid the pain and mistakes that my father caused me? I may seem fine now, but how do I know I won’t end up like that? Can I be perfectly sure? It’s that important.
These fears were rational, pervasive, and nearly completely dissipated after I held my little Penny for the first time at the hospital.
I realize that’s probably trite, but it’s the honest truth. The fear and uncertainty of all of the myriad things I could not control were replaced by the simple and unconditional love I had for the infant on my chest. At that moment, I also felt like I didn’t just have the best understanding of how God must feel about us, but also how my dad felt about me.
I knew my dad loved me, of course. I understood that concept intellectually, he told me all the time, and I saw it from his behavior before he became too sick to properly function. But it was a completely different thing to actually have a true emotional reference point, and with those first cries and coos, the lid on that box in my attic was kicked open, although not in an entirely negative way.
It’s a shame, of course, that I can’t discuss this with my old man. It must be a wonderful privilege to be able to call up your father and swap baby poop stories, or ask for advice on sleeping through the night, or brag about your daughter’s impeccable fine motor skills and babbling ability. But even without the benefit of that phone call, those shared experiences help re-humanize him a little in my mind. Before he was sick, before he slept for months in our basement, before the mania, my dad changed diapers. Or at least, he complained about the stench loud enough so my mom could come and change the diapers.
That box isn’t all neatly organized and filed, and dealing with that tragedy and that relationship, as well as how it relates to my relationship with God, will almost assuredly be something I have to work on my entire life. But it also doesn’t need to be something that is buried and forgotten, only to resurface out of anger because my life doesn’t fit the cookie cutter it’s “supposed” at church, and especially on Father’s Day.
Because you know what? We get to share that day now. Father’s Day is also my day. I’m not a perfect man. I don’t have the conventional career arc of the Mormon Man, or the correct Mission Stories, or a lot of that other stuff. I’m not a dentist, or in finance, or in law…I’m a writer, (and one with the occasional proclivity for profanity), and one with a non-traditional family, and I know that God loves me, and all of that family.
And on Father’s Day, I’m going to hold my head up high, eat whatever sugary treat I get at church, and play with my wonderful daughter. I’m not the model, but my wife and I have managed to keep a baby alive for nearly 10 months now, and I don’t think I’ve irreparably damaged her yet. That calls for some celebratory pancakes.
The attic reorganizing doesn’t have to get finished today. It wouldn’t be Father’s Day if I wasn’t able to get out of a few chores.