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Being ‘Dad’ Is a Never-ending Role: Reflection of Being a Son and a Father

Father’s Day is Sunday and the pending date has gotten me to thinking about being both a son and a father.

My days of sending a Father’s Day card or making a phone call on the annual date are over as my dad passed away a few years back. We were never exceptionally close, nor were we estranged in any exceptional fashion. We got along well enough and quietly accepted our shared dysfunctions without making any ado about them or trying to fix them.

It’s far too late for me to do anything about any of that now, and I do live with a modicum of regret buried deep that I don’t bring out except for special occasions. But I do use the past I shared with my dad as a kind of road map to the mistakes we made in the past and to try and correct those errors he and I made — applying them to my role reversal from son to dad as I stumble on in my role as a dad to my own two sons (mirroring the life of my dad).

Unlike him (he became a father in his mid-20s), I didn’t become a dad until the ripe old age 39. But unlike the birth of a son to clearly delineate the day of becoming a dad, my entry into the club was more subtle, spread over a length of time, as I entered my oldest son’s life when he was 10 months old. As soon as his mother and I married, we began the adoption process, but it gave me time to hone my “dad” skills along the way — and honing was needed in a big way.

I knew nothing about how to calm a crying baby, was clumsy at spooning him food and diapers were like some three-dimensional Rubic’s Cube in trying to assemble. And that was just the physical nature of my new role. The mental aspects were far more troublesome as I had no guidance or counsel — no practical experience to differentiate right from wrong as I plowed my way into fatherhood.

Plowed is the proper verb, because although I had no clue what I was getting in to, I never had a doubt about wanting to do this. The little guy was (and still is) lovable in every way. He is my son and I could no better get along in life without him as get along without my heart. In our home the only steps are the ones in the stairway and on the porches. He is my son and I am his dad and we make no further distinction in either case.

In his later years, my dad took to telling me he loved me — which was odd to me only because growing up the word was never used in our home. To be sure it was present in non-verbal ways, but was never spoken nor was it ever outwardly expressed. So as I hastily developed the rules that would govern my “dadship,” I determined that was going to be one thing I did differently. Daily I tell my children I love them and hugs are a regular and routine gesture that is freely given by either party.

Even though the love in our family has always been easily expressed and I’ve never questioned my place in the family, I can still recall with clarity the moment I knew I had “arrived” as a bonafide, card-carrying dad. We were in our first home as a newly minted family and my oldest son had his own room as his brother was a newborn and we didn’t want either disturbing the sleep of the other.

The nights were troublesome enough because of the older one’s continuing bout with night terrors. Like clockwork he would scream in the middle of the night and though you could talk to him, he wasn’t really listening as he was still asleep. The best we could do was calm him, comfort him until he would lay back down and then we’d all head back to slumber.

One night he awoke, but instead of screams, he was moaning. I went to his room to sit with him and as he sat up, he complained about his tummy hurting. And the next thing to pass his lips were not words, but his dinner. Without thinking, in a reflexive action I “caught” his now mostly liquid dinner in my hands.

I didn’t know it at that moment, but later, I realized — as a dad, I had arrived.

Many years later, as my children have grown older (currently 11 and about to be 9) I still find myself being challenged by new and perplexing demands of being a dad, I can’t help but see my own dad — his actions and just as often his words — coming from me, as if his spirit lives on. But even putting it that particular way is misleading, because to invoke his spirit is to insinuate his presence — like a haunting. But a haunting conjures unsettling and disturbing thoughts, and when I see a bit of himself in me it produces the opposite effect: I am sometimes amazed, but ultimately comforted by the thought that the time-worn adage of an acorn not falling far from a tree rings true.

It’s as if I’m being given the guidance of being a dad after all. When I thought I had no clue in how to proceed in this role, the information I needed was right there for me to find all along, laid down all those years ago by my dad. I just couldn’t see it for all the barriers I had placed between us through the years and it took his absence for me to recognize his legacy.

Am I doing things right? I still have my doubts. I know there are a number of things I still need to learn. And the true legacy of my time as a dad will quite likely not be finalized in my lifetime. One day, as one of my sons battles the complexities of being “dad,” and he finds guidance and comfort in a long-forgotten moment he had with me, maybe then I will know I did alright being dad.