The man who contributed half my DNA died in 1996 at the age of 52, felled by liver cancer. I can’t tell you too much about him—superficial details, mostly. He served in the US Army for most of his adult life, starting with two tours in Vietnam as a helicoptor pilot. He and my mother split before I was old enough to know what a father was. He went on to marry an Australian woman named Kate and to have two more sons, John and Sean.
At some point during my childhood, he approached my mother about having their marriage annulled. Something to do with Kate being Catholic and them wanting to get married in a Catholic church. I’m probably forgetting more than I remember, but I do know my mother refused on the grounds it would make me illegitimate. I’m not sure how the situation got resolved. For all I know, the annulment happened anyway. Or Kate and my father worked things out with the church. I was too young to understand the issue, and thus to have an opinion, but today I’d tell my mom go ahead and grant the annulment. I don’t believe there is such a thing as an illegitimate child, so it would make no difference to me.
Growing up, the times I saw my father can be counted on two hands. He had Army postings around the world, including a couple of years in South Korea and three or four in Germany. Once a year, at most, he would arrive in town and pick me up for a visit lasting a few days. The visits were pleasant, featuring fishing trips or water skiing, barbecues and theme parks. Once, he took me and a buddy on a flight from Savannah to Atlanta in a four-seater plane—my dad the pilot—to see a Braves game. Pretty cool, huh?
Kate, his wife, was always kind to me. That annulment thing might make her sound like a villain, but I have nothing but warm memories of her. When I visited, she cooked things I liked and teased me in a playful way that made me feel at home. She tried to get me to eat Vegemite, beloved food of her homeland, and laughed when I finally agreed to taste the nightmare stuff. I heard from my Aunt Jean, my dad’s sister, that Kate died a few years ago, and I felt genuinely sorrowful that I hadn’t gotten to spend more time with her.
The boys, my brothers, I remember less well. I saw so little of them growing up, and when I did they showed no interest in me. In retrospect, I assume it was because they didn’t know what to make of me. I was from some other place and time, a stranger—yet still connected to them whether they liked it or not. In the end, I suspect they didn’t like it. In late 1995, when I flew from Oregon to Indianapolis to visit my father as he was dying of cancer, I talked a lot, told a lot of stories about things that had happened to me or people I’d met. Nervous chatter, really, trying to fill the broad gap between myself and a houseful of strangers. At one point, the older of the two, John, snapped at me, “You just have a goddamn story about everything, don’t you?” I shut up then, and didn’t say a whole lot when I came back the following spring for the funeral. That last visit, we said pleasant things about staying in touch, me and John and Sean, but I haven’t spoken to either of them since. 18 years and change.
My Aunt Nancy, my mom’s sister, has often told me she knew my father loved me very much. But I have to be blunt. I don’t see how that could possibly be true. Sure, he was nice to me those rare occasions when we crossed paths. He took me to see Star Wars in 1977 when no one else would and despite the fact he’d already seen it and not cared for it. And, I understand, he never missed a child support payment. $125 per month, for my entire childhood until I graduated high school. I guess that’s something. It’s a measure, if nothing else. What was my value to the man who contributed half my DNA? $125 per month, plus the occasional fishing trip, movie ticket, and a present each year at my birthday and Christmas. My aunt has defended him, and I appreciate that … I suppose. She has said it was hard for him because things were bad between him and my mother. But as I get older I’ve come to feel that if I was important enough, he’d have tried harder.
Of course, I’m thinking about this today because it’s Father’s Day, and so on social media people are sharing a lot of great stuff about their dads. Hard not to think about your father on a day like today. Now, I’m not angry at him, nor particularly sad. Sometimes people who knew him will say I have a mannerism which reminds them of him, and I think, “Huh. Well, whatever.” Then I look around for the remote or whatever book I’m reading.
Father’s Day is a time that I’m a lot more interested in thinking about my own kids, and about how I can be a better father to them. I say it that way one purpose: a better father to them. I certainly hope I’m a good father, and I know my children appreciate and love me. I just got off the phone with my daughter and it was a delightful chat. But I also hope I can figure out ways to be better because we’re none of us perfect, and I’ve made my fair share of fatherly mistakes over the years.
It is my belief that children don’t owe their parents anything, not love nor respect or even the time of day. As parents, it’s on us to earn those things. If we can’t be bothered with making the effort, we have no one to blame but ourselves if our children tell us to kiss off, or tell us nothing at all. Do I think my father was a bad guy? Not at all. By all accounts, he he was good to his family and was nice enough to me in his distant way.
But in the end, I have to ask myself, what is $125 a month a Star Wars worth? Not much, I’m sad to say.