Father’s Day has always been strange to me for a few reasons. I think it’s because I spent the greater part of my life not celebrating it and later trying to figure out what I should be feeling on such a day.
Despite that, it’s always heartwarming to see the stories and messages, on social media and in numerous magazine articles, about the influential role fathers play in the lives of their children. Men are not celebrated that often in contemporary culture, so it’s great to see them acknowledged as heroes, nurturers, supporters and pillars of strength for their families, at least once a year.
The lack of emotion I grew up experiencing on Father’s Day was as a result of my parents’ divorce when I was very young – too early to have any conscious recollection of my father. All I had was the occasional story about aspects of his personality or which part of the world he might have been in. Then, there were the occasional sightings – mostly in black & white photographs. Once, my brother and I were watching TV and caught the rare sight of people who looked like us in a commercial for Ovaltine, the cocoa beverage (in those days, images in advertising for major brands always featured White actors). It turned out that the smooth business executive whose secretary made him a cup of cocoa was my dad – a fleeting glimpse, never to be repeated.
My first real memory of my father is when I met him at 16 years old. He had decided to return to Jamaica for a vacation and started writing to us in an attempt to forge a relationship ahead of our meeting. He insisted on bringing for us everything two teenagers could possibly want, plus anything else he could think of. Paul and I were wary initially but decided to be open to the possibilities. It went well at first but gradually degenerated when my father decided to assert himself and be incredibly protective without good reason. Laying down the law with a ‘my way or the highway’ type of approach did not resonate well with us. We were both well-behaved and responsible, and resented any strong-arm tactics from my father, no matter how well-intentioned.
Despite some missteps during those first few weeks, we managed to get through it and build our tentative connection further by letter and telephone. By the time I was 18 and ready for university, Dad stepped in with an offer for both of us to study in London. We were more than apprehensive but felt strongly that it was time for my father to relieve the pressure that my mother and other family members had borne for so long. The experiment lasted all of four months and ended disastrously. It would be another 16 years of virtually no contact before we reconciled.
It took a long time for Paul and I to get to a point where we could completely forgive my father for not being there and for not being able to meet our most basic expectations when he finally showed up. The love that I am now able to express for him has come as a result of my personal growth and a realisation that I am the ultimate beneficiary of the forgiveness and compassion that I show to others. Just being able to call him ‘dad’ was a significant moment for me and one that freed me of the resentment that I had held inside subconsciously.
The strangest part of all this is that I wouldn’t change a thing. Seeing my father raise two younger sons made me realise that by not being there, he had given us a wonderful gift. Being raised by my grandmother, mother, aunts and older sister was an amazingly nurturing experience that has infused me with the empathy and intelligence that I use to navigate life and its challenges with grace and calm. It didn’t feel like anything was missing, save for those odd occasions when other children would boast about their dads being bigger or stronger than anyone else. Looking back, I’m immensely grateful to those women for filling the void so effortlessly that even now I struggle to think of anything that I missed out on.
When I called my dad to wish him a happy Father’s Day, I was smiling deeply, knowing that whatever pleasure he got from my distant voice was matched by the satisfaction I feel for making his later years as pleasant as possible. It was great to hear him rambling on about the World Cup matches and reminiscing about the times he lived in Italy and Germany as a struggling actor, and what it was like to watch football with friends during their glory years.
I realise now that he did what he knew how to do. Unfortunately, marriages and children don’t come with a guidebook or instruction manual – parents do the best they can and sometimes it’s not enough. When I listen to him talking about his adventures living and working in Europe, and all the amazing experiences he’s had, it’s pretty clear that my father was not ready for the constraints of raising a family. If he had stayed, it would have been a disaster. Instead of resenting it, I admire his courage for daring to live a life that few Black men of his generation could even dream about. He learned German and Italian, made many friends and took more than a few risks.
For anyone trying to be a good father, the best way to assess your current efforts is to project ahead to when your children become mature, responsible adults. What would they say about you if they have to write a piece like this?
For those celebrating fathers today, try to look past their shortcomings and accept them, flaws and all. If, like me, your father wasn’t always around, trust me when I say that forgiveness is the best Father’s Day present you could give to him and to yourself.
I hope you had a wonderful Father’s Day.
I wasn’t anything special as a father. But I loved them and they knew it. ~ Sammy Davis Jr.
One of the greatest gifts my father gave me – unintentionally – was witnessing the courage with which he bore adversity. We had a bit of a rollercoaster life with some really challenging financial periods. He was always unshaken, completely tranquil, the same ebullient, laughing, jovial man. ~ Ben Okri
“Don’t forgive him. Forgive yourself for believing there is something lacking in you because he wasn’t there.” ~ Iyanla Vanzant