Fathers Day

Photograph of an Chinese man holding a small Taiwanese American little girl who is his daughter, in front of a church. She is a baby with a pacifier and a white dress with a red checkered kangaroo on it. He is wearing a suit.

Tomorrow is the first Fathers Day since my father passed away suddenly last October when I was away in France, between my sister’s birthday and mine, with his last communication wishing me a happy birthday just a couple days before he passed.

It is the first Fathers Day where he is not alive, but it is one of many where he is not present.

The picture with my father at the top of this post is one of a few that I have. My mother and father divorced when I was a toddler, and I have no recollection of ever living with my father. He was in Asia most of my life, and came to visit once a year (or so) between the divorce and when I turned 6 or 7.

I don’t have many memories of my father in my childhood, only that once I waited for him because he said he would come. I watched out our large bay windows, as it rained hard outside.  I waited and waited, but he didn’t come.

When he did come next, my mother told him that he had no right to keep me waiting like that; they fought. The other fight I remember my mom having with him was about taking me anywhere alone. She was afraid he might try to run away with me, steal me to spite her. Maybe it was the same fight. I don’t remember.

But I do remember that I didn’t see my father between 7-16.

I deeply wanted a father who was present. I felt an inconsolable silent melancholy when father-daughter dances happened or during every Fathers Day in my childhood. I didn’t let on that not having a father bothered me. I didn’t want to hurt my mother. I celebrated my mother on Fathers Day because I didn’t know what it was to have a father to celebrate. But what I did know is that it was lonely.

My father returned to the states when my mom died, to attend her funeral. He was at my high school graduation. He came once when I was in college and I had dinner with him and my cousin in San Francisco. He came to my wedding and I invited him to join my brother in walking me down the aisle of my wedding which he did. I saw him when his mother, my grandmother died, and he came to the states. It was my son’s first birthday, now over 15 years ago. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the last time we would see one another in person.

It is strange to me that I can almost count the number of times I saw my father, in person, in my life.

I would exchange messages with my father via e-mail occasionally. I would ask about his new family in Myanmar, who I only heard about through my brother until randomly, when my sister was 12 or 13, he asked me to send books in English to her for her studies.

When the deadly government coup happened last year, I wrote him to check up on my sister and his family. He wrote back, “I’m surprised you remember that you have a family.” Channeling my mother’s rage and my own that I, his child, had ALWAYS been the one to reach out to him and had no obligation to him or his family, but cared because I loved the sister I had never met. It shocked me because he had generally been kind to me prior to this interaction, which was my effort at checking in with and seeking to help my family. I wrote a strongly worded e-mail back and started communicating just with my sister. This was my first time experiencing his callous accusations, and I made it clear to him that it would also be my last.

My father calmed down and apologized. I forgave him.

He was nothing if not consistent in his life, speaking before he thought, in ways that were hurtful to those who most loved him.

And I am nothing, if not forgiving.

In the brief period between when my sister arrived in the US, just over a year ago, and his death 8 and a half months ago, I probably talked to and saw my dad (on video calls) on a more regular basis than I ever had. My sister was used to having him around (by phone & video call at least), so we talked almost regularly. These three months helped me see my dad as a (very fallible) human being.

My relationship with my father wavered between non-existent, inconsistent, approval seeking (I somehow felt if I could be perfect enough, I could get him to notice me), and finally accepting.

My father was who he was.

And who he was is often the antithesis of all I strive to be.

But also, he is a large part of me.

And he is the father of my brother and my sister. They are gifts to me, in all of their humanity.

I loved my father, in spite of all the things, the complexities, his humanity and imperfections.

He has taught me, in his absence, so much about humanity, pride, and a deep desire to fix what is broken.

He has taught me the consequences of being unkind to those who love you, but also that even for those who are unkind, there are still those who are loyal to them, that no one is really unlovable.

He has taught me that people are infinitely complex, that they can be deeply revered by some and despised by others.

He has taught me that there can be so much good in a legacy that comes from a deeply flawed individual.

He has taught me that we can’t deny who we are, any of it, that humanity is about embracing all of who we are, if we want to be in true community.

I feel a deep sadness that there is no longer hope for further mutual repair of any type of relationship with my dad. Among my siblings, I am the one who never grew up living with my dad and spent the least amount with him. For me, there is not anger or resentment, nor is there loss in the traditional sense. There is only emptiness.

That emptiness carries forward in my life to this day. I don’t know how to celebrate Fathers Day because I don’t understand it. I am terrible at celebrating the father of my children (my husband) and his father (my father-in-law), my brother (who is a father and was always a father-figure to me growing up), or the people closest to me who are fathers. Most of these people are AMAZING fathers. I love them and honor their parenting. They have helped me reconstruct an understanding of fatherhood and co-parenting.

But Fathers Day itself still creates a lot of cognitive dissonance for me.

Like Mothers Day, Fathers Day is complicated for many people (including me). I get it and, for myself, I am working on giving myself grace as I try to figure out how to make space for all of it. I wish there was some better resolution, but for now, there is only a void, a longing, a profound and enduring sadness as I long for something I have never known, and as a daughter, now, will definitively never know.

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