By Stephen J. Lyons
When I was in second grade, my father left our family to begin another one with a new wife. For a while my father was an every-other-weekend dad, then a once-a-summer dad and, finally, a phone-it-in dad. Then we lost touch. There were decades of no contact. Thankfully, with time, that has changed.
But I wonder, whether it would have made much of a difference in the arc of my life had he stayed in what I now know was a bad match and an unhappy marriage with my mom. Kids or no kids, why punish yourself when you can start anew?
I cannot recall a single pearl of fatherly wisdom he’s passed on to me. Did he teach me to ride a bike? Pitch a tent? Bat a ball? Cook poached eggs? Drive a car? Approach girls? Did he offer support when I went through my own divorce? For better or for worse the answer has consistently been no. These are skills I learned on my own in the alleys of Chicago’s Southside, through close friends and from my dear late mother.
One moment in particular stands out. I am a senior in college about to present a final report as part of my journalism curriculum. We are to dress formally in suit, tie and dress slacks (as if anyone in a news room aside from ad executives dresses that way). I had never worn, or even owned, a tie. So I borrowed one and brought it to class, but I had no idea how to construct the knot. A kindly professor came to my aid, commenting as he stood in front of me tying a slick Windsor knot, “Didn’t your dad ever teach you this?”
I am now a 63-year-old man, much too old to blame my 87-year-old father for much of anything, except perhaps the stoop in my posture, a love of sharp cheeses and an aversion to living rooms full of talkative people.
The rare times we get together, the sounds you are most likely to hear from the two of us occupying the same physical space is from the turning of pages of books and newspapers. If he had stayed all those years ago would I have won a Pulitzer by now? A MacArthur Genius Grant? A two-book deal at Knopf? Doubtful.
Not all parents have what it takes to nurture and guide children for the long haul. It requires time and effort in what can be a thankless slog of worry and disappointment. Rewards can be elusive, but there is, I believe, a payoff that directly corresponds to the amount of attentiveness, sensitivity and affection one puts into the task.
I love my father, and I am grateful that we have any relationship at all, for my sake and my daughter’s. He is very accomplished, and I am so proud of him, despite the fact that it might have come at the expense of the stability and strength I so badly needed as a young boy.
When we get together we don’t discuss the past because, well, we don’t have much of one. There are no “remember whens?” to parse or toddler pictures to trigger memories. Our conversations are mostly about non-personal current events. I am sure he hardly remembers much about my mom, although she talked about him almost to the day she died.
Life is not a Hallmark movie with a neat ending where all of the conflicts and hurts are resolved and everyone hugs it out as the credits roll.
If I could ever find that elusive, perfect father’s day card it would say:
Thank you for not being there. I am stronger because of your absence. Without a road map I blazed my own trail; my mistakes are my own. My modest successes were accomplished with my own small skill set. When I got knocked down I rose on my own without your hand to lift me up. Also thank you for choosing my mother, who pulled double duty in your absence and who remains my lodestar.
And you know, maybe, just maybe, he also did better without me by his side.
Stephen J. Lyons writes and mows his lawn from a small town in central Illinois that now features an independent bookstore and a yoga studio. His home is across the street from a cornfield.
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