I was 22, our dad had been dead for almost seven weeks and I was two weeks away from immigrating to the United States. I sat there at 10:30 pm on a Friday night with my two little brothers, aged 15 and 16, still in shocking grief and we switched on British Channel 4, waiting for some inappropriate, sophomoric American humor to lift our spirits.
The Father’s Day episode of the first season of South Park did not disappoint. At some point during the show, Cartman finds himself in the school counselor’s office talking about his single mother and behind the counselor’s desk was this poster:
If you don’t have a dad, you’re a bastard. My brothers and I looked around for a brief micro-second to see if it was OK to laugh. Then we couldn’t stop laughing until we ended up almost literally rolling on the floor. The line from the poster is still a humorous shortcut, a kind of inside joke that can take all of us brothers, thousands of miles apart, back to this poignant moment.
Humor is a funny foil against sadness. I still whip out a bit of gallow’s humor when people ask me what I’m doing for Father’s Day. “You know, it’s the one day a year it pays to have a dead dad, ha ha. I don’t even have to buy him a gift.”
Being a dad without a dad is more complicated than that, of course. So many times we’re left guessing how our dads dealt with stuff. I often look to a passing cloud and ask him. I often think of the thousands of kids I’ve coached and taught, in my 18 years of teaching, and wonder how they must feel.
It’s a bastard not having a dad. Twenty-two years wasn’t long enough, but I was lucky to have him. He fought prejudice in England by becoming one of a handful of Irish public defenders in the country. He held firmly that happiness is a byproduct of doing the right thing, rather than an end in itself. He taught me to listen to my conscience and to stand with people when no one else wants to stand with them. It’s a hard value to teach and to practice.
I named my son Brendan after my dear father, hoping some of his spirit would live on. When my boy ran out of Shake Shack to give his French fries to a homeless man who was sitting outside, I knew that my Dad’s spirit lives on.
And now that I’m a dad myself, I allow myself to get into the spirit of Father’s Day a little more easily. It’s important for my son to see how happy his displays of affection and appreciation make me.
Happy Father’s Day.