The Perfect Father’s Day Gift

I gave my dad an onion for Father’s Day.

As Father’s Day gifts go, it was unusual, to say the least. Generally speaking, produce is not commonly given as gifts to anyone, let alone men on Father’s Day. But it is true – my dad got an onion on Father’s Day some thirty-five years ago.

I was six or seven years old – about the age my daughter is today – and holidays were special occasions. Father’s Day did not seem to have the same importance to me that Mother’s Day had, and I attributed that to the fact that I saw my mom regularly every day. I had a relationship with her. I felt close to her. So it was natural when Mother’s Day came around, I would want to honor that. I may not have understood what “honor” meant at age seven, but even a kid knows how to express love. But Father’s Day was different for me, and at the time I didn’t know why. It just wasn’t as big a deal. I wanted to get my dad a gift for the day, but I had no idea what to get the man.

Because I did not know him.

I did not see my father regularly every day. I did not have a relationship with him. I did not feel close to him. And as a result of this, I did not have any idea of what kind of gift to give him for Father’s Day.

At seven, I understood that gifts should be made of things the recipient likes. In that sense, Mother’s Day was easy, because my mom loved flowers, and she loved the artwork we would bring home from school (at least she acted like she did!), so I remember making paper flowers for her one Mother’s Day – yellow daffodils –  and she demonstrated love and appreciation in return.

So I tried to think of what my father liked. And at seven years old, I could think of only two things: cigarettes and beer. Both of those were out, of course. Too young to buy either, even if I had the money to do so, which I didn’t. But what did he like? What did he enjoy?

The only thing that came to my mind was an onion. This is because I had seen my father eat onions all the time. The cutting board of our kitchen frequently smelled strongly of onions, for he would slice off the ends of the onion, then peel the papery outer layers of the onion and leave the remnants on the cutting board, much to my mother’s vexation.

My father would eat the raw onion like an apple — biting into it whole.

At the time, as a kid, the only thing I thought about this was, “yuck”. (Actually, as an adult, I still think “yuck” at the idea of eating an onion like an apple.) But he did a lot of things that I considered “yucky” when I was a little boy – he hunted and killed deer and elk; he fished for trout and salmon and all manner of water-dwelling creatures whose taste did not agree with me; the smoking and drinking were very unappealing. So it was just one more thing about him I didn’t understand.

But I figured, he liked onions – I’ll get him an onion. So a few days before Father’s Day, I got the biggest onion I could find in the onion bin at the grocery store, and in order to make it a surprise, I hid it behind the couch until Sunday morning, and gave it to him as a gift.

I remember the appreciative look on his face, a sort of tolerant detachment that he always seemed to favor me with whenever we did actually interact. He thanked me for the onion, saying it was “real nice”. Eventually, he ate it.

It was not until many, many years later that I learned the only reason he ate raw onions was to mask the odor of alcohol on his breath when he went to work.

My father drank, and my father experienced much loss through the years related to his problems with alcohol. Whether he recognizes the loss of a relationship with his youngest son, I don’t know. He doesn’t really talk about that.

Today, we speak at holidays and such, and when we do, we speak of surface things – the weather, his boat, any luck he may have had at the casino recently… He’ll ask about me, and I’ll give him the “bird bath” version of my life (not going very deep), and he may ask about his grandchildren, depending on how the conversation is going. Eventually, one of us will mention the time and how we ought to let the other one go, and we say goodbye and hang up. And that brief, awkward interaction will last me for another six months, or until another holiday comes around.

No, it’s not the kind of relationship I want with my dad, but it’s the relationship I have. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “fake it til I make it”, but no matter what I have done, I’ve never been able to cultivate any sort of bond with the man. I’ve tried, but I can’t conjure something from nothing. I’m not that good of a magician.

I spent many years in a lot of anger and sadness about my father. I felt like I got “ripped off” in the dad department, when I’d see my friends with dads who participated in their lives and I had a man who lived in the same house with me but was completely unavailable.

I felt like my father never gave me anything other than a legacy of wreckage and loss, of heartbreak and missed opportunity. Gifts no child would want. As an adult, I came to feel such resentment over this – and of course, that resentment was only poisoning me.

When I learned that “forgiveness” was something that I do for myself, and not something that I bestow upon another person once I deem them worthy, I took a big step forward in my emotional growth. A wise person once pointed out to me that to forgive simply means “to see it another way”. If I can see something from another viewpoint aside from my own, it allows space to breathe, to contemplate, to release.

How I could “see it another way” in my father’s case was, “He did the best he could, and his best wasn’t all that good — according to me.” And – he was a sick man, a man with his own wounds, and was unable to give his youngest son what he needed most. But he did the best he could. The truth is, if he could have done better, he would have.

Today I’ve gotten to the point where I am “okay” with this. It is not what I would want for myself, but it’s okay. But every now and then, I get into a little bit of self-pity, and I go down that path of “I didn’t have this, I didn’t have that, I missed out on this, I wish I could’ve done that…” Pointless wallowing in my own disappointment and sadness – it’s a slippery slope into a trap, and I best avoid it at all costs. For when I fall into that trap, I get stuck, and misery ensues. I’ve found the way out of self-pity is to be of service — to get out of self, and into others.

Today, I have two kids who know their Dad loves them completely. They have seen their father dress up in costume, play games, have impromptu Saturday Night Living Room Dance Parties, teach them about life, hug them when they cry, blow raspberries on their bellies while they giggle and squeal, race with them, help them make good choices, talk to them in funny voices, introduce them to art and music and nature and Spirit, dazzle them with my vast knowledge of the universe, and–if I’m lucky–get them to eat a vegetable once in a while.

Nobody taught me how to do this. Nobody told me this is what I should do for my kids. I didn’t read this anywhere. All of this came to me from a simple question: what did I want my dad to do when I was their age? From the time they were babies, that has been my guiding thought in how best to serve my kids – to be the kind of father I wanted to have for myself.

And I’m a fantastic Dad. In a way, I have my father to thank for this — for it was his parenting that engendered this vigilance I feel to be that fantastic Dad. Because of the example he provided in how not to be a father, I have become a better dad, and a better man.

I guess he did give me a worthwhile gift after all. Maybe I’ll thank him for it when I call to wish him a Happy Father’s Day.


In A Father’s Care

He came into the world, and everything changed.

I became a father eleven years ago. My experience as a dad is no more profound or special or remarkable than any other man’s experience as a dad. And yet, I suspect every man’s experience as a dad is special and remarkable. Becoming a father is an opportunity to see the world anew, through the eyes of the baby that changes a man into a dad.

From the minute I saw him, I knew that I would die before I let him meet harm. That is what I said to myself – that I would die before I let anything happen to my beautiful baby boy. It was love at first sight — but like the infant I held in my arms, I had no idea what that love would come to look like as the years went by.

I had no idea how to be a dad. I had a father, but I did not have a dad. My father did not spend any time with me as a child, did not teach me any life lessons, did not show me what it was to be a man, let alone a parent.  So when I had a child of my own, I was winging it from day one.

I was terrified. The first night home from the hospital, his mother and I took turns sleeping, so one of us could hover over his bassinet and make sure he didn’t stop breathing — because all the parenting books we’d read filled our heads with horror stories of babies suffocating under blankets or pillows or cats that climbed onto the baby’s chest to steal their breath away in some evil feline plot to gain dominance over man. (never mind the fact that we didn’t have a cat.) We slept with his bassinet right next to our bed. We also had a baby monitor in his bassinet next to his head, and the receiver in between our pillows so we could hear him — three feet away.

Like I said — terrified.

As the years went by, I sought to ensure his health and safety as any good parent would. I was hyper-vigilant in making sure he was looked after, he was comfortable, he was never neglected or left unattended. I made sure I told him he was loved at every available opportunity, and I demonstrated that love with physical affection and tenderness that I never received from my own father. I was bound and determined to be the Best Dad Ever, and keep him from harm.

And in that lofty, noble goal was my supreme error.

I spent countless hours worrying about his welfare, his feelings, his future. The older he got, the more I saw myself in him — and I saw him repeating some of the behavior that was shown not to work for me when I was a kid. I wanted to help him avoid the mistakes I made, and when he was resistant to my “help”, I worried more.

When the divorce came, I was wrapped in fear of what would become of my children. I was certain they would end up “broken” because their home was broken, and I would lie awake at night grieving the loss of the happy future that I was sure was lost to them.

And when a new man was brought in to their mother’s home almost immediately after I moved out, I just knew that my role as their father would be usurped and the bond that I had forged with them would be lost. I did not know what it was like to have a bond with a father, so I did not know how strong that bond can really be.

“Have a little faith in your kids,” my friend Rich suggested one night as I tearfully shared my fear about the new living situation we were in. “You’re the only Dad they will ever have. No one else gets to fill that role for them. Don’t you think they know that?”

I sighed reluctantly and believed it, but as the days went by, I still ached and worried about them. I would lie awake at night, unable to sleep, missing my kids and in deep despair over the path their lives were now taking. I spent weeks dwelling in despair, frozen in fear. I did not know what to do.

One day my son told me that he felt that his mother’s boyfriend seemed to be giving him messages that he needed to change. My son indicated that this man was of the opinion that he wasn’t okay the way he was. I was livid, and I plunged into even deeper despair over the fate of my son. I knew I was powerless over what went on in his mother’s house, and I knew that if I confronted the situation directly it would likely end up in a restraining order (or worse, a prison sentence) — and that would mean I’d see my kids even less than I already did.

I shared about this in a support group one day, and was really only intending to unload my burden because I had grown weary from carrying it around. It was difficult to speak with the giant lump in my throat that threatened to break into a sob, but I finally got it out. I felt a little better at having given voice to my fear, but I was no closer to knowing what to do about it.

And then a woman spoke. I did not know this woman. I had never spoken with her before.  But she delivered a message to me that day that I desperately needed to hear.

She said, “When I have a loved one in my life that is going through a tough time, and I find myself unable to bear the fear or sadness that I feel for them, I put them in The God Room.”

I looked at her, surprised, for I had never heard this phrase before. This was something new to me. She continued to speak, and while she spoke in the group, she looked at me as she talked. She delivered this message directly to me.

“When I’m in fear for someone I love, I close my eyes. I visualize myself walking with that person, holding their hand, smiling and telling them what they mean to me – telling them what I want for them, sharing my hopes for them. And as we walk, we come to a door. We stop before the door, and I turn to my loved one and I tell them, ‘I love you so, so much.’  And then I turn to the door.”

As the woman shared this visualization, I could see it clearly in my mind. I was mesmerized. She continued.

“I see myself turn the doorknob, and I can feel it is pleasantly warm. And when I push open the door, we are bathed in light. The door opens into a room that is filled with the purest, brightest, whitest light imaginable. It is warm and feels safe and comfortable. The light fills me with a sense of peace, and grace. And I visualize myself turning back to my loved one, hugging them tightly, and I kiss them. Then I usher them in to this room filled with the bright, peaceful, warm light. And then I close the door.”

She paused for a moment, and then said, “I put them in The God Room. I do this because they are in God’s hands, not mine. I can love them, and I can support them, but I have to let go of my will for them and let God’s will be done.”

She looked at me one last time and said, “Put your kids in The God Room. They’re gonna be okay.”

That woman gave me a great gift that day. She reminded me that, while I love my kids fiercely and unconditionally, I am only their Dad. I am not their God.

Today, when I feel that fear over my children’s well-being, I remind myself of what my role in their life really is: I get to love them, I get to model behavior for them, I get to demonstrate what works, I get to support them in their own learning, on their own life paths. And I get to play with them, giggle with them, sing songs with them, and be silly with them.

But I can’t shield them from all harm, all sadness, all heartbreak. And really, why would I want to? For shielding them from that is interfering with their life experience. My job is to help them grow up to be good people in the world, and part of that is helping them to deal with adversity. God is in charge of the rest.

My son is eleven, and adolescence is approaching. We are seeing the signs already – the moodiness, the frustration, and impatient and intolerant attitude that surfaces now and then. He is experiencing his challenges – some of the very same challenges I experienced at his age. I remind myself that my experience is not his experience. He will experience this in his own way. I get to support him in his growth, help him up when he falls, and love him through all of it.

He is in The God Room.