My relationship with my father is, and has always been, one of the greatest blessings in my life. I hope that my daughters, one day, can say the same.
It began with a sense of kinship. Even as a young boy, I was told how like my father I was. I look like him in face and frame. I sound and speak like him. I think like him — so much that my mother sometimes asked me for insight into what he thought or felt. We share the same values and the same faith. We enjoy many of the same things, from camping and fishing to photography and sports. We root for the same teams (though I picked up a few new loyalties, much to his dismay, as I moved around the country). We’re both cancers on the Greek Zodiac and dragons on the Chinese. We even share birthdays, as I was born on the day he turned twenty-four. Not that I believe in Zodiacs (there are no good pick-up lines that include the words “I’m a cancerous dragon”), but I always enjoyed having so many things in common with the one and only man I’ve ever considered my hero.
As a father myself now, my perspective on Father’s Day has changed. I used to watch Bill Cosby chiding his ‘children’ for their lame gifts on The Cosby Show, and I’d wonder if my father disliked the latest tie or pair of socks. If I could do it over now, I would do it differently. I don’t care what my daughters (I have one three-year-old, and another due to arrive in a couple months) give me. I just want to spend time with them. I want to enjoy life together. And when they’re older, I want them to have the same kinds of fond memories that I have of my father.
So I offer this list of gift ideas with a small helping of fatherly perspective and a large helping of childhood memories. These are not new gadgets.
ONE: Fishing equipment. Any fishing equipment. Whatever he doesn’t have. But the point is: whatever you buy, you must go and use within one month. There’s something magical about fishing with your dad. I remember, when I was too young to do it myself, watching with fascination as my father wrangled another night-crawler onto the hook. Once the line was cast, we popped open our Dr Peppers, listened to the rhythms of the wind and the water lapping against the boat, and the hours that passed opened up their marrow. Sometimes people – men especially – have to talk for an hour before their souls unwind and they can speak of things that matter.
Some of our best conversations came in the boat, on the riverbank or on the lakeshore. We spoke of everything from hopes and dreams to the physics of black holes and the Dodgers’ prospects for the coming season. We even had the talk in a fishing boat. My father had already taken my elder brother on a one-on-one fishing date in order to talk about the birds and the bees. My brother’s strategy was to say “I know” to whatever dad told him, as though he were already an expert on sex. I think dad found this disconcerting. My strategy, even though my approach to flirtation at the time involved explaining to girls the details of their anatomies, was to feign complete ignorance. After my father conceded that sex was indeed enjoyable but explained that it should be held in the confines of marriage, we went back to talking sports and astrophysics and why the trout and striped bass weren’t biting that day.
I always wanted to go fishing, but I never particularly cared whether we caught a fish.
TWO: a nice outdoor sleeping bag. Some of my fondest memories from childhood involve sleeping underneath the stars. I once awoke my father and told him there was a growling bear nearby, and was relieved when he explained that it was only my snoring grandfather at the other end of our little chain of sleeping bags.
I had a problem with sleepwalking as a boy. It happened in hotel rooms (“Tim, why are you sitting in that chair?” “You know, that’s a really good question, dad.”) and at home (on one night I awoke on a sofa cradling a sword in my arms, and on another I walked down the street and knocked on a stranger’s door at two in the morning), but the worst was when I awoke curled up on the ground in the middle of the forest, far from the campsite. You can imagine how this concerned my father when my brother and I were going to spend the night atop Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, where there is a thousand-foot cliff not far from where we would sleep. So in spite of his intense fear of heights, my father backpacked with us to the top and tied a rope from my wrist to his. Then we watched a spectacular meteor shower from 9000 feet above sea level and were reminded that this universe we inhabit is far larger and grander and more beautiful than our little compass of concerns.
THREE: a common project or a common dream. There’s nothing like joining in a common cause to foster a sense of trust, loyalty and gratitude. These things can range from the small to the large. I always enjoyed building things with my father, helping him work on the cars, painting houses, or doing lawn work. But the great common cause of our relationship, when I was a boy, was my gymnastics career.
The gym I attended was an hour away, so one or both of my parents had to drive me two hours round-trip every day, and to wait through three hours of training. My father in particular came to know the sport well. He was never one of those obnoxious parents who jeers from the stands or criticizes a judge or tells the coach what to do. But he was a pillar of support. He traveled to nearly every competition, praying with me, providing for me, taking burdens off my shoulders. He made last-minute trips for Gatorade or ran back to the hotel for a gym bag.
He congratulated me with tears in his eyes when I first won a national title, and he wept with me when I suffered injuries. When I was sixteen I went into one national competition with a strained pectoral muscle. After it tore on the second day of the event and I had to withdraw (though I was in the lead at the time), my father wrote me a letter the following day explaining that he had wept not with disappointment but with pride and broken-heartedness at how I had persevered in the face of adversity until fate closed the door.
One day, he said, you will understand how you dream your dreams with your children, how you come to care even more for their hopes and aspirations than for your own. And when you see your children confront their fears and train their bodies and hone their minds and strive and persevere and overcome, then your children become your heroes. That, he said, is a beautiful day.
And indeed it was. I was rocked by that letter. I’ve kept it all these years. I hope my daughter will let me share in her dreams in the same way my father shared in mine. I hope she will welcome me into the things she cares about. That would mean more to me than any material gift I can imagine.
FOUR: an anchor. My father provided me with many things, of course, from mundane things like food and shelter to sacred things like an exemplar of faith and a reflection of the goodness of God. I’ve never seen God as a cruel taskmaster. I’ve always seen God as immeasurably gracious and loving and generous, and the reason for that is obvious. But another thing my father has given me, one of the greatest gifts I’ve received from him, is a sense of stability. As long as he is with me, my world has an anchor. It has a center.
When I broke my neck in the warm-ups for a college competition, and found myself in a hospital bed with a halo drilled into my skull, my world did not stop spinning until my father arrived. Then there was a sense of constancy, a sense that everything was not falling apart. After a fusion surgery, I left the hospital and went to my parents’ home, where the doctors had ordered me to sleep on the floor. My father slept beside me on the first night, to keep me company and help me if I needed anything. Perhaps it was a childish, some kind of regression, but I reached out and held his hand. I don’t know what that felt like for him. For me, it felt like I was no longer falling.
So on this Father’s Day, perhaps you can give your father something that symbolizes what he has meant in your life. A mirror for a father who has reflected the grace of God. A carving of a home for a father who has been a shelter and safe haven. A pillar for a father on whom you have built your dreams. Or an anchor for a father who has given your world a center.
After all, those things do not last forever. It now falls to me to be a mirror, a shelter, a pillar and an anchor for my own children. But I will be grateful for my father for as long as I have him. And when the day comes that my father is gone and my world is unmoored from him, at least I will have used that time when my world was anchored to build an anchor for my own children. And at least I will have told him what a blessing he was.