My father was never a presence in my life. I was raised by a loving and engaged single mother, who, in my mind, more than made up for his absence. So before having children of my own, I’d managed to convince myself that fathers didn’t matter.
A little more than a decade ago, when my wife and I were still dating, I’d listen, with a shallow awareness akin to the average person’s limited understanding of space, as she talked in great detail about the bond she shared with her father. Similar to trying to comprehend the Milky Way, I processed what she said on a superficial level, but I had no way of knowing the intimate beauty and friendship that flowed from her relationship with her dad.
Without an experience of my own to draw from, how could I?
My understanding of what fathers represent was based in part on popular portrayals on the big and small screen, of dads as one-dimensional, incompetent figures who were inconsequential at best, and a detriment to childhood development at worst. This image is best captured by the long-running image on “The Simpsons” of the buffoonishly written father, Homer, trying to strangle his mischievous son, Bart. Who needs that, I’d think to myself while watching the show.
As a child coming of age during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I also was bombarded with faulty studies making dubious references to data that incorrectly predicted that I, a black boy growing up without a father, was destined for delinquency. The fact that I didn’t suffer emotionally from his absence, and that I avoided prison, became further proof in my mind that my not having a father was no big deal.
Boy, was I wrong.
This was driven home recently when I was unpacking end-of-the-year paperwork from my children’s backpacks. As part of a writing assignment, one of my 7-year-old twin boys, Cary, wrote a poem called “My Dad,” that in less than 10 lines captured how he feels about me.
“His heart is worth more than a million bucks,” he wrote. “And he’s super cool. Cooler than a million bucks.”
Knowing that this boy, who hyperventilates at the sight of a $100 bill, thinks that I am worth more than a million dollars is proof that my presence has an impact on him that is both recognized and prized. But there are other clues in my family that attest to the positive power fathers have on their children. I see it in the way my daughter, Clair, lights up with joy when I attend a school performance. I spot it in the way her brother Dean breathlessly begins recounting his day the moment I walk through the door.
And, as with my wife’s relationship with her father, these benefits will reach well into my kids’ adulthoods.
Last summer, my wife and I joined her parents, her siblings and their children for a week-long beach vacation. We were several days into the trip when my father-in-law raised the prospect of shortening his time with us to get back to his own father, at the time a nonagenarian, for whom he cooks, cleans and cares.
Missing a few days, I reasoned, wasn’t the end of the world. And besides, I told him, his brother, who lives a short drive from their father, was more than capable of stepping up to fill the void. After I dismissed several of the excuses he offered for wanting to leave our vacation early, my father-in-law, who’s in his mid-60s, finally turned to me and said “I just miss my dad. He’s my friend.”
My father died a stranger when I was a sophomore in college. I don’t know what his belly laugh sounded like or what types of movies he enjoyed. His favorite foods are a mystery to me, as are his biggest regrets in life and his proudest moments.
I had to have children to realize that his absence from my life represented true loss — I missed out on one of life’s best unconditional friendships.
That’s a gift I’m thankful my children get to enjoy.
Lester Davis is deputy chief of staff and communications director for the president of the Baltimore City Council.
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