I Love My Small Screen Fathers
Fatherhood is Complicated; So are Our Relationships
Shortly before Father’s Day, I started thinking about all the great times my father and I had. Some of the stories were awkward and embarrassing; some of them were sweet and full of love. No matter how they are characterized, they are still wonderful stories.
I was a young adult, and it had been a while since my father and I had talked. Our relationship could have been worse, but it could have been better, too. Neither of us hated the other; it was just that we were similar in many ways, and it was hard to spend time around one another.
We’d catch each other just at the wrong time and say some snippy comment that would blow up bigger than it should have. I’d roll my eyes when he did something that I found annoying although he was just trying to help. He’d make a mistake but be too proud to apologize.
And I wasn’t sure that the relationship was going to survive. Maybe this is just where we ended–both stubborn and opinionated to a fault.
I was at a work event, flirting with a longtime crush, when my sister called me and told me our dad was in the hospital. He was undergoing surgery, and while it wasn’t a major operation, it was still serious; the doctors were removing some type of growth close to his spine. If they made a mistake, he could have been paralyzed or had other serious health problems.
I did the right thing and went to the hospital. When I came into the room, he was still groggy from the anesthesia. The medication made his less defensive, more vulnerable. He was happy to see me, and I sat in a chair next to his bed while he rambled about my childhood.
He told me a story in which the roles were reversed. I had undergone surgery as a kid, and he had stayed at my side the entire time. I think he even slept in the chair next to me. I was so young that I hadn't remembered that story, but I smiled as he told it.
I let him ramble a bit longer before I left. That experience didn’t fix the relationship overnight, but it reminded me of who he had been as a father. Eventually, we found a way to work through most of our differences, and we have a fairly healthy relationship now.
He’s my friend.
I was certainly old enough to know better when I got myself into serious trouble. I had taken a risk that I shouldn’t have taken. I thought I was being bold, and I justified my actions because I had a good reason: I was trying to expose someone who I knew was committing unethical, and likely illegal, acts. Some people would say my moral compass made me brave; others would say I was cocky, arrogant.
Either way, I got caught, and things fell apart quickly. Honestly, I’m not sure what would have happened to me if he hadn’t shown up to save me. Would I have been hurt? Beaten? Killed? I really don’t know. All I know is that he rescued me.
He was lecturing me as only a father can. What were you thinking? Do you have any idea what consequences you’re facing? How could you do this?
I looked up at him and said, “You're the only person I trust.” But, really, I think we both knew that what I meant was “I admire you. I want to be like you. I want you to be proud of me.”
He looked at me for a moment, placed his hand on my head--representing his compassion and love--and then left me alone while he fixed my egregious mistake. He hadn’t just saved me from whatever fate awaited me; he had saved me from the consequences that might have ruined my life.
And I was genuinely grateful for that.
He’s my hero.
I was in my mid-30s when my father announced on Christmas Eve that he wanted a true celebration this year. There had been no advanced thought or planning, and it was hard for me (or the rest of the family) to take him seriously. I hadn’t even bought him a gift!
I was an adult with a significant other whom I loved and a small business to manage. The idea of putting everything on hold to find decorations for the party (my assignment apparently) seemed ridiculous. I made my friend give me old decorations from her attic–nearly all of which were beyond pitiful.
My sister didn’t invite people, and all the good trees were gone, so we were stuck with something scrawny and short that barely resembled a tree at all.
His disappointment was obvious, and he sulked and left us alone. He walked to a diner up the street and my mother had to retrieve him with heartfelt apologies.
It turned out that it hadn’t been about the holiday at all. He simply wanted us to be united and to spend time together. I suppose we should have figured that out earlier.
No matter how lazy or ridiculous we felt, we never wanted him to be disappointed in us, and we all felt incredibly guilty. While he was gone, we worked together to find better decorations, invite neighbors, and open several bottles of wine. By the time he returned with my mother, there was a low-key party.
He was surrounded by his family, friends, and neighbors, and his face lit up. I think I’ll always remember his expression as he walked into the room. His smile warmed something inside me, and I let his approval wash over me like a gentle breeze after a storm.
He’s my dad.
I have a confession: none of those stories belong to me. They’re tweaks to summaries of television shows I often stream.
The first story is from Kim’s Convenience during a sincerely genuine conversation between Jung and his father after Mr. Kim awakens from surgery.
The second is from White Collar, a paraphrase of a wonderful moment in which Burke saves Neal from returning to prison after Neal is caught trying to expose a corrupt doctor.
The third is from a Christmas episode of Schitt’s Creek in which John is trying to establish new, positive memories with his family.
There are no perfect fathers and father figures on this list. There’s no Danny Tanner, Phillip Banks, or Alan Matthews. There’s no father character who gives a speech followed by an audience’s awws. You can spare me the hugs and shoulder claps.
I don’t want the perfect father figure. I’m not looking for the do-no-wrong idol or the man who always made time to play catch with his kid.
I want Peter Burke, who has trust issues throughout the entire series. I want Johnny Rose, who was incredibly neglectful until he lost his money. I want Sang-il Kim, who cannot figure out how to connect with his rebellious son.
I want the complicated fathers because that’s what fatherhood is: complicated.
And so are the relationships we have with them.
Complicated, but Connected
I can’t count the number of times I have asked someone a variation of “How do you get along with your dad?” only to hear, “Uhhh…it’s complicated.” I’ve answered the same.
We're not sharing the horror stories of broken bones or terrifying threats. But neither are we writing the stories about Dad taking us for ice cream after soccer practice. We’re admitting that relationships aren’t black-and-white, that lines can be redrawn, and that emotions can swirl together like acrylic paints until they can never be separated again.
My father often yelled at me while drinking a beer because he didn’t know how to show affection. He left me and my mom, and when he did come back in my life, he repeatedly disappeared again. He practically disowned me after I became a pregnant teenager, but he was a loving grandfather.
He didn’t stop my mother when she said cruel things. He didn’t understand me because I was so much like my mother. He lost his temper with me because he understood my sisters better.
Again, these aren’t my stories. They’re those of Dan O’Conner, Gavin Schmidt, and Richard Gilmore. Jack Gellar, Marty Crane, and Jed Bartlett. All of them are beloved father characters, but none of them would win Father of the Year.
And yet, somehow, in all of these shows, the kids connect to their dads. There’s mutual forgiveness and moments of tenderness. There’s comfort after a difficult day and an effort to right the wrongs. There is genuine praise and pride.
There. Is. Love.
My father is driving me to elementary school. I haven’t hit double digits yet, and I’m at a great age to listen to adult-ish music without having any idea what they’re referring to. It's a sunny day; there should not be anything memorable about the average day that began like any other.
We’re listening to Amy Grant’s "Say You’ll Be Mine". As an adult, I obviously know she’s talking about romantic love, but as a kid I assume it's either familial or friendship. After all, those are the only types of love I know.
Seemingly out of the blue, I ask my father, “Do you think we’ll love each other forever?”
What did I expect him to say? As an adult, what would I say?
I don’t remember his exact response. It was affirmative for sure. I think there was something about an unbreakable bond. Maybe unconditional love. He probably cited Robert Munsch's Love You Forever, a book we had read together hundreds of times.
But would my father forgive me if I made the mistakes that "sorry" can't fix? Would I forgive him if he he did the same? Is forgiveness the same as love? Could we choose to not forgive one another and still love each other?
We have a lifetime and a half to make new mistakes, to learn to forgive and accept, and to come to terms with the consequences of our choices.
Whatever he says, it's enough to persuade me that we will love each other until he dies--mostly. I know that I'm not supposed to be thinking these thoughts or asking these questions, so my seven-year-old brain accepts his response at face value and hopes that it won't need to be tested.
By the time we arrive at my second grade classroom, I have moved on to the horrifying message of "Big Yellow Taxi".
Love isn’t Simple; Neither is Fatherhood
That story is real, and it is my childhood in a nutshell, which is likely why I still remember it.
I knew life was complicated.
I wanted reassurance that my father would be there to guide me through it.
I wanted validation that he would love me unconditionally.
Maybe most importantly, I wanted to know that I would love him, too.
And yet, despite his positive response, part of me knew I had asked a question that was too big for a simple answer. I knew I had tripped over one of those things in the universe that I wasn’t supposed to know yet.
And at that moment, I knew that love wasn’t as simple as "unbreakable," “unconditional,” or “forever”.
I knew that love was probably muddled with sadness.
Even paternal love.
And there was nothing I could do to change that.
I don’t think either of us could have predicted how tangled and difficult my life would become and how those knots would affect our relationship. If we had, would he have answered that question differently?
Would I have asked it at all?
One of the most difficult things to do as an adult is to accept our parents as they are. They’ve had a life full of their own experiences that have shaped who they have become, and they are products of their own parents and childhoods. It’s up to us to redraw the lines and make the decisions about how much to accept…and how much to love.
But during all of those thoughts and decisions, I’ll keep watching the small screen. I’ll continue to seek the complicated fathers and father figures who give me faith that even the most difficult father-child relationships can be full of love and forgiveness.
I don’t expect to make any dangerous decisions anytime soon.
But if I do, before he saves me, I hope my dad places his hand on my head--representing his compassion and love.
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