There were years I gave ties and years I gave tools. Those were the good years. Then there were years I gave nothing. Those were the bad years. Being Daddy’s girl only works if Daddy sticks around. Mine didn’t, and Father’s Day quickly morphed into Forget Him Day. Not that that worked very well. How could I miss him and hate him at the same time? For years, I prayed, “Heal our relationship.” Still, there was no relationship. So I prayed, “Help me love him anyway.” We spoke a few times a year. The prayer changed to, “God, please bring restoration.”
Then, my son got cancer.
But before that, my Father’s Days went something like this:
Father’s Day 1979. Elkhart, Indiana. I am ten.
“Daddy, can we go to the pool one more time and go down the big slide?” I let go of his hand and run down the hotel hallway. “Please,” I swivel and run backwards. “Please, please, please!”
Laughing, he sprints past me. “First one with their suit on gets to pick off the room service menu!”
I turn to catch up, running faster and faster, until I slide into the room behind him.
“I win!” He throws my pink swimsuit over my head. “And I pick, hmm…” He places his fist under his chin, his eyes focus in deep concentration.
I silently plead hamburgers and onion rings. Our favorite.
“Hamburgers with onion rings!” he roars.
“And mustard,” I remind him with a grin.
Father’s Day 1987. Roseville, MN. I am 17.
“I miss you, Dad.”
My sigh crosses two hundred fifty six miles in less than a second. I picture him in his office downstairs behind his massive oak desk and smell the cedar on the walls of the office we built together when I was eleven. He let me drill holes and mount planks for hours, never complaining about how much time my help cost him in the process.
“I know…I miss you, too.” His chair squeaks in the background, and I know he is leaning back, rubbing his hand over his face. “It was a good idea to go up early and get a job. You’ll be fine once school starts. I’ll drive up there next week. We’ll go to that hotel in St. Paul for crab legs, okay?”
“Okay. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.”
Father’s Day 1989. Windsor, WI. I am 19.
Butter sizzles on the griddle. My dad stands calmly flipping pancakes. Dishes lie piled next to the sink, forgotten, just like me. Rage pours off my body in waves. The smell that used to comfort pushes me to vomit.
Our roles reverse this morning, and I am the voice of reason. It’s confusing, this turnabout. I shift my weight. Struggle to stay standing.
Dads don’t run away when life gets hard. They don’t stop holding up your world while you’re still getting your bearings. They don’t let you drown in betrayal and bewilderment.
He turns the griddle off and crosses his arms.
“You told me to leave if I was unhappy.”
“Since when do you listen to me?!” I scream. “I’m nineteen years old! You’re the dad!”
“I need to get out. I haven’t been happy for a long time.” He avoids my eyes, looks at the ground. The only sign of remorse he’s shown since this conversation began.
I take a step back against the wall for support.
“So you’re just going to walk out? What about me?”
“You’re all grown up. I did my job. I need something for me.”
“I hate you,” I hiss. “I will never forgive you if you do this.” My heart hardens with every word. “You’ve lost me, too.”
2004. Madison, Wisconsin. I am 33. My son battles leukemia in the fight of his life.
My hands shake. I lean against the bedroom wall, the phone pressed against my ear. Tears stream down my face. I hate Father’s Day. Once a year, my heart rips open, leaving a hole that takes weeks to bandage. Why am I calling my dad today of all days? The last time we talked, it didn’t go so well. That was two years ago.
The phone stops ringing and he answers. Same voice. Familiar and heartbreaking all at the same time. “This is Tom.”
I panic. Go to hang up. Change my mind. How can I still miss him so much? I want to curl up in his lap. But I can’t.
“Daddy?” My voice shakes. I struggle to breathe “Kyle’s sick. He’s not getting better. The chemo is killing him. Daddy, I don’t know what to do.”
Then his voice, hoarse and unsteady, comes across the line. “I’ll be there in three hours.”
“Okay,” I whisper back. The line clicks. I close my phone and slowly slide down the wall into a puddle on the carpet.
“Lord, I’m so tired of all this pain. I can’t do this anymore. Please fix this,” I beg.
The memory our last Father’s Day together grabs me. Pulls me back into our kitchen where my dad is flipping pancakes, wearing a granite face. I smell the fresh batter. Nausea comes in waves—I am there all over again.
Then, an odd thing happens. In this memory, my dad says the words he said before, but as he’s talking, he transforms into a small boy. His angry, impenitent voice lowers. The hurtful words begin to change.
“I’m lonely,” the little boy says. “I want to be loved for who I am.” His eyes, glossy with unshed tears, pierce mine. “I’m hurting. I don’t know what to do.”
Taken back, I push off my bedroom carpet and open my eyes. I want to put my arms around that little boy. My dad desperately wants to be loved. Just like me. This I can understand. The bitterness and anger, buried deep inside my soul, loosens just the tiniest bit. No matter what he did, I love my dad, and I need to tell him.
Father’s Day 2006. Madison, WI. I am 36.
Dad and I sit at Perkins, sipping coffee, our booth hidden behind frosted glass. Glad for the privacy, I gear up to say the words I’ve prepared. Last year when he came for Kyle, I didn’t tell him about the little boy I saw the day I called him sobbing. Will he understand if I tell him now? I need him to understand—it is our bridge to restoration.
“I’m glad you spent the weekend, even if it was because your truck wouldn’t start.” He comes every few months to visit, but never stays longer than a day, and I covet the hours that we have together.
He nods, moves his hand to cover mine. “It’s been a better year,” he begins. “Kyle’s doing better and,” he pauses, his eyes catch mine, “there’s you and I.”
I rest my other hand on his and squeeze. “Dad…I’m sorry for all the awful things I said to you the day you left. And after. I was angry and hurt. I didn’t mean those things–” my voice breaks.
His eyes grow shiny. He pulls his hand from mine to blow his nose with the napkin from the table. “I love you, and I’ll always be your Dad. I’m sorry too.”
He wipes his eyes. “If I could do it all again….” His voice drops. “If I could take it back, I would.”
Words I never thought I would hear. Words I longed to hear. The ache in my heart begins to mend. Sometimes it’s hard to believe my dad is back in my life. And while we can never go back, we can move forward.
Today is a power tool day. And I am grateful.
With a grin, I reach under my coat and hand him a box. “Happy Father’s Day, Dad.”