Not everyone celebrates their father on Father’s Day. I recently Googled mine for the first time — to double-check that he was still alive. He was not a good dad; we are not close. He taught me one crucial lesson, though: that fatherhood is not about his way of being a dad.
During a trip to Disney World when I was 13, one night I decided to sleep in my swim trunks at the hotel. I hadn’t gotten them wet because I didn’t know how to swim (still don’t). He scolded me at bedtime, then he yelled at me, then, when I didn’t remove the suit, he beat me on my arms and legs. Finally, he stripped me. All in front of my younger siblings and our mom. The youngest, my brother, was 8.
In the dark of that room, naked and bleeding, only the sound of my sobs filled the silence — until I began putting my trunks back on. My father heard the hushed rustles, got out of bed, pulled me up by my hair until he could lift me by my neck and dragged me to the parking lot, throwing me against the car door and telling me to get in. He drove so furiously as he swerved onto the main road that I tried, unsuccessfully, to open the door and roll out. I saw my mother, in tears, chasing after the car and pictured the taillights glaring at her like the taunting eyes of a fleeing demon.
“Bastard,” my father muttered. He was enraged that night, as he often was, at me more than my siblings, because I, the firstborn, had made my father a father. I was the proverbial 98-pound weakling, so I hurled words over fists, mostly half-plagiarized takedowns from trashy soaps like “Days of Our Lives” and “Melrose Place.”
“Bastard? I wish!” I said. “I wish I was an orphan! I wish I wasn’t your son because you’re nobody’s father.”
He pulled over under a billboard and yanked me out. He pressed my face into gravel with his sneaker. “We don’t sleep in the clothes we’ve worn all day because we are not pigs,” he growled. “But you want to be a pig, fine. This is how pigs live. Are you a pig?”
This was one of those traps abusive parents lay, like a violent version of “Does this dress make my butt look big?” There was gravel in my mouth, but he heard me: “Go to hell!”
None of this turned up in the Google search. Mostly I found material about the successful career of an investor, pharmaceutical executive and government scientist.
I wondered where his kids were. Not me or my two younger sisters or our younger brother — I mean our half-brother and half-sister from the secret family he raised while ostensibly trying to patch things up with my mother. Having gotten her to type up his dissertation, he left her in London to care for three young children and a fourth on the way while he set things up for us to join him in Maryland a year and a half later. He took a government job in Washington, after which he was always too busy to see us, even though he found time to visit Graceland.
Eventually we joined him, but even our moments together were fraught. As kids, my siblings and I used to cheer from the back seat: “We want wobblies!” He always obliged. We didn’t know until much later that this game had a grown-up name, too: driving under the influence. Today, when people ask about the long, deep scar across my forehead, I don’t mince words: “My father drove drunk a lot.” That particular scar resulted from a crash on an icy bridge when I was 7.
He leaned heavily on his accent, as Brits in America do, and had a vibe of Hugh Grant if Hugh went to the gym all the time. “Your dad’s basically James Bond,” friends at school would say when he picked me up. I bet 007 would be a terrible father, too.
How did he become that way? My grandfather is a delight. My aunt and uncles are all wonderful people and parents. I look at my cousins — the children of Zeus, Poseidon and Athena — and wonder why I got stuck with Hades for a father. He fancied himself Midas, but he excelled only at vanity. I’ve learned, in reading about the psychology of abusive parents, that it’s common for abusive fathers to be narcissistic, craving not just attention but celebration. Even the most bumbling of parents will tell you that having children means giving up both.
We gave him even less than normal, I suspect, because he did so little to earn our love. At breakfast one morning, he returned from a long run asking us to fetch him milk; we poured a glass from the carton that had been on the table for the past hour or so. He threw the drink in our faces. “The milk’s warm, you morons!” We laughed at his tantrum, my first memory of mocking him, even in his anger. As teenagers, we openly debated what we’d do if we ran into him with one of his suspected mistresses at the mall. As an arrogant college student, realizing he didn’t know what “antebellum” meant, I heard myself, “Cat’s in the Cradle”-style, belittling him exactly as he’d belittled me: “Why are you so stupid?”
My neighbor’s dad taught me to ride a bike. A barber taught me to shave. My mother gave me the birds-and-bees talk. My high school chemistry teacher taught me about sports and integrity and how to play pool.
That last one happened when I was 15, in the rec room of a North Carolina halfway house for runaways. I had shown my teacher my bruises, and he had helped me escape, driving me from a friend’s house to the shelter. I scratched the table on my first try. He put his hand on my shoulder, and I flinched, expecting, out of habit, to be hit. I started crying. “It’s okay,” he said, leaving his hand there. “You’re not bad. You’re special. And they know that here.” It was the first time I felt touched by fatherhood (my teacher was new to it, with 1-year-old twin daughters).
My mother attended the shelter’s counseling sessions, but my father didn’t. When I’d scold him in later arguments for crossing his arms during a serious talk, he’d say that I’d been “watching too much Oprah.” Once, when he wouldn’t drive me to an important track meet, I walked along the highway to get to school. When he pulled his car ahead of me, waiting, I hitchhiked my way past him. I’d rather have taken my chances with someone who’d pick up a 15-year-old hitchhiker.
After 13 years together in America, first in Maryland and then in North Carolina, my parents separated in 1998, formally divorcing in 2003.
Eventually, I gathered my courage and severed ties. “I’m truly ashamed to know you and worse yet to be related to you, to be your son,” I wrote in a 2004 e-mail that was the last communication between us, spurred by his announcement of his secret family. “The idea of growing up to be like you makes me nauseous. I suppose, in a backwards way, I can thank you for that: for providing me with such a clear example of the person I never want to be.”
(Contacted by The Washington Post, the author’s father denied hitting his son at Disney World or driving under the influence.)
Parenthood is supposedly enshrined in humanity’s mystical root language — “father” is baba in Mandarin, baba in Persian, babbo in Italian, papa in Russian and abba in Hebrew. But my mother didn’t want those words in our house. So we called my dad by his first name. I used to begrudge her that. I wanted a “dad” just like every other kid, but now I think she knew he was never worthy of the title. A few years ago, he was banned from my sister’s wedding. No wonder that, during a recent chat, my paternal grandmother, his mom, told me she hoped he didn’t come to her funeral.
For a long time, I hated my father so much that my hatred extended to anything he liked, such as butter pecan ice cream. I was determined to be Not Him. But to be exactly his opposite was still to let him define me. I have to live my life as best I can, for the same reason I had to pull my swim trunks back on in that Florida hotel room — not because I wanted to swim, and not because I wanted to make anyone angry, but because it was my way of finding dignity in disaster. It is said that you truly become the person you’re meant to be when you lose a parent. Disconnecting from my dad finally allowed me to become my own man.
Like a Jew on Christmas or a Mets fan during the World Series, I’ve made my peace that Father’s Day happens with or without me. So I’ve made do. I’ve made it Fathers’ Day, plural, which this year, gloriously, is June 21, the longest day of the year. That’s as it should be. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.
I spend the day thinking about fatherhood, whether I’ll ever have kids, what I’d like them to call me. (Papa, I think.) I think about the lessons I’ve learned from my friends’ dads. From my friends who’ve become dads. I think about what it means to be a man, because I still think, despite it all, that fatherhood is the highest state of manliness, the highest compliment to children and the highest complement to mothers.
I find myself drawn to the many forms of fatherhood. I read about the dad who set up a micro-nation so he could make his daughter a literal princess. I read about 21-year-old Barack Obama, locked out of his apartment on his first night in New York, sleeping in an alley, sobbing and reading a letter from his estranged father; and about President Obama telling reporters that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” At weddings, I listen for fatherhood references in the groom’s vows and always cry at those father-and-bride dances. I wonder what JFK Jr. thought of fatherhood, or what Prince William thinks. I wonder if Jesus, the Son, ever wished He’d gotten a go at fatherhood. I wonder if I’d ever feel inclined to hit my own children, and I joke that I’m such an overachieving father already that I’ve accomplished dadbod and dad humor before having kids. I think about fatherhood the way you might think about the environment on Earth Day.
Certainly children can be monsters (“Hitler with my wife’s eyes” is how a friend described his infant daughter to me), and I was no angel. But, as a writer, I love the challenge of fatherhood — the possibilities of it! — because it is the opposite of writing. Writers can be frauds, conjuring erudition with the right words, pretending to be smarter or funnier or cooler or kinder than we are for a sentence or paragraph or essay or novel. But not for 20 years.
Fatherhood is a crucible, a distillery, a way of wringing out a man to see if he can still be his best at his worst, his strongest at his most vulnerable, his most thoughtful at his most exhausted. Like any good test, it has its fair share of failures. It’s not quite an “A for effort” game. But, as the NBA’s Steph Curry said at a news conference celebrating his Western Conference Finals win, as his young daughter made an adorable spectacle next to him: “Whatever comes our way, we gotta be able to fight through it.” I can’t wait.