“Oh father, maybe someday, when I look back I’ll be able to say you didn’t mean to be cruel…somebody hurt you, too.”
An overwhelming number of friends and peers from my generation had absent fathers. In fact, the term “deadbeat dad” dates back only to about 1975 – 1980. Such a phenomenon was practically unheard of before then. The era that gave us sideburns, PTSD, and Disco Duck also popularized absentee-parenting.
If you’re my age, wading through the waters of your mid-forties, this comes as no surprise. Just check out Facebook. The differences between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day posts can be fascinating.
On Mother’s Day, many people post pictures of their moms from back when perms were as prevalent as second-hand smoke. Touching tributes detailing all the ways in which they loved these important women. Fond memories often include undying gratitude for sacrifices they made to ensure a happy life for their children.
I never saw the same kinds of posts on Father’s Day.
Many were ambivalent, bitter, or downright angry about men who left their kids behind to struggle through childhood and adolescence without financial or emotional help. Some expressed gratitude back to mom again, for being both mother and father through hard times.
Now these absent fathers, men we barely know, are growing old, dealing with regret, and dying.
Where does that leave us? We are still their children, whether we like it or not.
Years ago, many of my friends started hearing from estranged dads, and some were thrilled to reject those bastards the way they’d themselves been rejected years earlier.
We don’t have to welcome returning fathers with open arms, but what’s wrong with forgiveness? When a family member or loved one reaches out, aren’t we obliged to reach back? I always thought blocking a person’s mea culpa might be a bad idea, because holding on to a grudge really only hurts the one holding it.
My own dad left to smoke crack on Christmas Day, 1984, and remained missing for over twenty years before looking me up in 2006. Gotta love Google! When he reached out, I felt like I had no choice.
He asked for forgiveness and so, I forgave him. For valuing alcohol and drugs more than his children. For leaving my mother to raise us alone. For passing down unruly hair and a large forehead. I continue to forgive him. For showing little interest in me or my family. For only emailing me a few times a year.
I have no idea what will happen when he gets sick and passes away.
What about dads who don’t ask for forgiveness?
My father-in-law Mitch had been arrested and thrown in jail when my husband Marc was fourteen. Mitch believed because he’d attended Columbia University, and a yeshiva in Israel, he was smart enough to get away with a few felonies.
He was wrong.
A few years later, as Marc wound his way through high school and started college, his father was released and attempted another illegal scheme to make money. That didn’t work either. Instead of returning to prison, Mitch fled to Arizona and remained a fugitive for the rest of his life.
He snuck back home for our wedding and our sons’ bar mitzvah celebration, but the years were not kind to Mitch. When someone gets older and experiences deep regret, sometimes that guilt manifests into bad behavior. If you know a grumpy old man, chances are he’s made some serious mistakes along the way and that’s why he’s now impossible to be around.
Those mistakes don’t necessarily indicate he was a deadbeat dad, like ours. It could be that he regrets how he treated his loved ones, doesn’t know how to make amends, or is suffering on some other level. He’s trapped in a prison of his own design and doesn’t realize he holds the key to unlock those chains and shackles.
That’s how Mitch died. Unbelievably cruel to his children in the last two years of his life, he lost touch with everyone and died alone.
He died while we were on a family vacation in Key West, and we couldn’t help but chuckle and think, “Of course.” It was so like him.
I took a long walk the morning after he passed, thinking about him, and all our distant dads. Mitch’s own father was abusive and cruel. Same with my father’s father. Instead of breaking the cycle, they continued it.
Leaving to us that enormous responsibility, and gift.
I breathed in their pain and suffering, and breathed out compassion and love. It seemed like the least I could do, in between rum runners.
Our sons asked about their Zayde (Yiddish for grandfather) and we thought about how to observe his passing.
“Maybe tonight at midnight, we’ll wake you up and say ‘Get dressed, we have to haul ass…can’t make rent this month’ just to relive a favorite memory from childhood,” Marc told them, with a sad laugh. “Or maybe I won’t make five months of payments and we can gather around to see our car repossessed.”
Both boys looked at us with wide eyes.
“Is that true, dad? Did that happen?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t so bad,” Marc said. “He taught me to be a better kind of father.”
That’s not the only thing deadbeat dads taught us. The lessons go deeper than fatherhood. They taught us to look at life with grace and humor. They taught us to shower ourselves and others with compassion and love. They taught us how to make mistakes and amends. They taught that this type of behavior ensures a life without regret.
They taught us the value of a great bad example.
This weekend is the one-year anniversary of Mitch’s death. We light a yahrzeit candle for him and all our absent fathers. For those who, dead or alive, are still paying dearly for past mistakes. We, their children, have all the power.
Let’s release them with our gratitude and forgiveness.