“What’s shakin’?” my dad asked, looking over the room with the silliest of grins. The audience, comprised of people newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, burst out laughing. Here was my dad sharing his gift of inspiration and humor with strangers in dire need of hope and levity. It was a beautiful moment, and it was a moment that profoundly reoriented my conception of familial love. I was compelled to step outside my pre-established conception of my father, the selfish framework where I was the presumed center of attention, the sole focal point of love. I saw how big and accommodating his heart truly was, and I finally understood what that mattered.
Unfortunately, we don’t tend to celebrate moments like this one when Father’s Day rolls around. It’s trite to lambast the commercialization of holidays; the connection between purchasable goods and days of recognition is, for better or worse, inevitable in the United States. No, what I take issue with is the myopic focus of Father’s Day, how it has been reduced to a one-on-one (or one-on-many, depending on your sibling count) relationship between parent and progeny, leaving little to no room for the celebration of the father as not just a dad, but as a person as a whole.
It’s hard to picture fathers as multi-faceted in the same way it is hard for children to imagine their elementary school teachers existing outside the classroom. We are so accustomed to the father-and-child connection—and how could we not be? We grew up with it—that we can easily lose sight of our dads existing as separate from their relationships to us. There’s an overemphasis on shared experience; you buy barbecue supplies because, hey, grilling was a thing you did together. These gifts aren’t intrinsically bad, per se (they are certainly better than ties), but they reveal an approach to Father’s Day that is more about simply recalling shared activities than it is about actually knowing your father. It’s an approach that says more about us as gift-givers than about the people receiving the gifts.
Don’t think I’m preaching from some enlightened position, passing down you-should-know-betters from my moral high horse; I’m guilty of this error in perspective, too. When I was in high school, my dad volunteered his time to help with the cross country team I was on. To me, this was a minor violation of my right to “do things on my own.” Yet the team was lacking numbers in the coaching department, with scores of kids participating and only two paid coaches supervising. My dad’s involvement gave the slower runners, the kids often neglected at practice, someone to talk with, someone actively invested in their performance and in their improvement. It took me far longer than I’d like to admit to realize that my misgivings were selfish; I was focused on my dad as coach and not my dad as coach, as a guy whose volunteering mattered to kids otherwise ignored.
It wasn’t until I saw my father interact with the Parkinson’s patients he consoles that I truly understood how far beyond our nuclear family his heart extended. Previously, I’d only conceived my dad’s struggle with Parkinson’s as a quotidian and private affair. It was something I was fiercely proud of him for combating, and I let that praise be known in every birthday letter and Father’s Day card. What I hadn’t understood, however, was how inspiring his struggle was to other people. He is normally a quiet guy, so watching him speak openly to a room of strangers, assuaging their fears and making them laugh, was eye-opening. He meant something entirely different to these people than what he meant to me—not more, not less, just different. They’d only met him an hour before, but he brought them into his heart without hesitation. Needless to say, it was inspiring.
This Father’s Day, try to consider not just what your father means to you but what he means to others, also. Every father-child relationship will have flaws, that’s just the nature of paternal love, but that doesn’t mean he as a whole is somehow faulty. Drop your grudges and your frustrations; celebrate the love he generates in the world beyond just you. Father’s Day isn’t just about your father as Dad but your father as a complete entity, as someone beautiful and special. Tell him you love him, yes, and tell him you’re thankful for all his sacrifices, sure, but also let him know you appreciate his unique contributions to the world around him. Let him know he’s not just a phenomenal father, but a phenomenal person, too.
By Stuart White