This piece was written in June 2015. Joseph was 9 at the time. I had intended to read it at my father‘s funeral. He died on 10 December 2020 of complications from Covid-19. I, among others, was not able to attend his funeral in person.
I picked up the boy from a Friday night sleepover and said goodbye to César — à demain — expecting to see Joseph’s schoolmate the next day. Instead César confirmed what I heard from his mother on Friday: he would not be attending the final Scout meeting of June.
It’s easier to encourage one boy to attend with another and I managed to mumble a dommage with no expectation of further explanation. Instead, with his father beaming at his side, that particular 9-year-old clarifies that he will not attend Scouts as Sunday is the Fête des Pères.
As a person who takes few-to-one holidays seriously, and with César affixing his usual bemused look as I again reveal how poor my French is, I pronounce that the best gift to a father on that day is to leave him alone — to give son papa a day of no obligations. I say this while not really believing my words, jealousy battling for control of my brain as I supply the ready excuse that I am neither connecting grammatically nor culturally.
Antoinette and I do relish our Sundays when Joseph is at Scouts. Lately, those days have been bright with perfect temperatures. The routine goes like this: drop boy; slowly make our way back up the hill; really look at the city as if for the first time; grab a hamburger or a big salad; take nap. (On one Sunday, we squeezed in an episode of Game of Thrones¹.) Those days pass as quiet and relaxed. That this particular Sunday happens to be Father’s Day means it should be no different; that’s the gift to me.
Sunday arrives and the boy has other ideas. He had not been awake for more than 10 minutes when the pronouncement came: “I am too tired; I am not going to Scouts.”
We’ve been challenged lately, the boy pushing boundaries at every chance. I do what I can to avoid certain conflicts: I am clear and short when a simple “no” is required. Easy enough. Getting him to move when he insists he will not is a bigger challenge. I wait it out. I am lucky and find that his mother has donned her super-mom cape. Relief arrives in this form when some way needs to be found to get him moving: to school, to Scouts, to otherwise.
And so it goes.
I find myself then in possession of the best father’s day gift, the one I knew I wanted — time outside of the school and work week to call my own. In a flash I realize I am wrong. Joseph has given me a greater gift. He showed strength and independence and kept a commitment. He demonstrated dedication to his comrades.
The times in my life where I saw my failed attempts at this quality well up as if to fill a bucket with tears, assigning a flaw to my character which I was certain my father saw. But then I remember: I judged myself as failing to commit; I saw myself not meeting promises; I measured myself as afraid to proceed. My father did not. He did not press; his was a quiet acceptance.
I circled back to my own father’s day², realizing that this steadfast loyalty, embodied this morning in my son, was a reciprocal gift from and for my father and his father before him. It is a dance of success and failure across generations; the hopes and trials which bind father to son and back again.
Thank you Dad.
¹ As I edit this one last time I wonder if this cultural reference is already dated.
² I did call my father today to wish him a Happy Father’s Day. It’s a poor substitute for being there, for my father is loosing his mind. I still call it early onset dementia — the “early” being a distinction to no doubt soften the blow for his wife, children, and friends. “Hi Dad,” I say deliberately, “this is your son Richard.” He could not recall the name of my wife nor his grandson. I said goodbye without any assurance that he knew who called. He seemed confused by the mere idea of Father’s Day. As was I.