I’m the father nobody wants to look at on Father’s Day.
I am the father nobody wants to look at on Father’s Day. People don’t know what to say to me. They suspect that whatever they might say could crush me. Or, even worse, I remind them of the possibility that their perfectly healthy child could be diagnosed with cancer.
That’s what happened to my son Pablo, on a sunny Saturday in 2008.
After 13 months of cancer treatment, Pablo died. Six days after his sixth birthday, with people all over the world rallying around him, he stopped breathing. Just like that.
In the moment of Pablo’s death, I lost my youngest son — a moment in my life that will never make sense to me — and I also lost a massive part of myself. I lost the part of me that was built to nurture and teach, to protect, to obsess about the development and life experience of another person. The part of me I didn’t know I had until my wife, Jo Ann, told me she was pregnant. The part I’m angling at, of course, is being a Dad.
This is my eighth Father’s Day without Pablo to substantiate my place in the club. So today is, once again, a day I will float through space, standing at the windowsill, looking out at the world. This day, which celebrates the paternal bond, the frame fathers bring to their families — and, frankly, the purpose children bring to the lunk-headed gender — leaves me not knowing where I fit in. It also leaves me wishing I had a kid delivering lumpy pancakes to me in bed with a handmade Father’s Day card. Something I’ve always dreamed of.
When Pablo died, moving on with life simply as we had before Pablo fell ill wasn’t an option. My wife, my stepson Grady, and I were forever changed. So we started a foundation in Pablo’s name to honor his life, and his unstoppable energy. We started The Pablove Foundation as an attempt to trace the shape of who he would have become. We started a foundation to have something that would grow in place of his body. We started a foundation so that Pablo, in death, could show up in the lives of others, contribute to society, as he would have had he lived.
If we hadn’t established Pablove, we would be cosmic misfits, looking at life from afar, wondering what could have been, had our little boy survived the vicious medical drama known as ‘cancer treatment.’ From our experience in the halls of hospitals, we knew that people needed to be connected. For all the attention that is placed on cancer through the countless charities in the world, pediatric cancer is still a lonely, isolating place.
What we couldn’t have known is the significant connection that would be needed for reasons other than pediatric cancer. Today, in spite of social networks that promise to keep everyone ‘connected,’ there are so many people who still suffer in silence. As it turns out, The Pablove Foundation is a comforting touchstone for fathers of children with cancer, as well as for fathers of children who have never spent a night in a hospital with their child. It allows fathers to stop and feel the bond of father and child. And, yes, it allows fathers to sit and stare and wonder: “How would I feel if I were in that guy’s shoes?” In a world where “likes,” black-and-white political arguments, and celebrity gossip get so much airtime, this is a significant contribution that was inspired by the bond between me and my son.
This connection is so powerful it almost defies description. Yet here I am telling you about it. When Pablo was born, we had the best of intentions for him, and for who he would be in this world. We wanted him to grow up to contribute to society in myriad meaningful ways.
In some ways, we won the ovarian lottery. Pablo came into our lives, lived for six years and six days. In those 2,196 days, Pablo made his contribution. He instructed us through his love of photography and storytelling. His concern for others. His pursuit of joy. When I think about it, the dream we had as parents was fully realized. And then, like the light in his bedroom that I turned off after he went to sleep, he was gone.
So today, I encourage you to acknowledge all the fathers in your life — including yourself, if you are so lucky. It’s an omni-dimensional thing, fatherhood. It’s a job, for sure, but it’s also a place. A location. Our kids expect us to be their place, their refuge, to stand up for them, to show them how it’s done.
When you look at the animal kingdom, you see this facet of parenting in stark relief: protection, hunting, gathering. Teaching offspring how to jump, how to lunge, how to sense impending danger, how to stand tall… How to be in the world.
On so many levels, we’re granted the privilege to shape the lives of our kids. We get to smooth the edges of our own upbringing by attempting to do it better than it was done for us. Rewrite the story. I looked forward to doing that with Pablo. While he was here, I certainly tried.
Today, I only need to look into the eyes of those we serve at the foundation: the kids, the parents and siblings. The donors, the scientists, the clinicians. In their eyes, I see my son — I see Pablo, alive and contributing to the world in a way I literally couldn’t have ever imagined.
And that is something everybody can look at.