a father's day dilemma

photo by  Lauren Rushing

Today we continue our June series featuring the writing of fathers. 

Our guest writer this week is AJ Collette, who blogs at ajcollette.com. AJ reflects here on Father’s Day, which, like Mother’s Day, is particularly difficult for the babylost. AJ writes, “I started writing to share a journey that started with the loss of my beloved son, Joshua, in April of 2013. The way forward has been a challenging path of discovery as well as recovery. In my search for a ‘new normal’ however, I committed to a continued pursuit of hope. It has been through that lens of choosing hope that I have been looking back and looking forward to find meaning, answers, purpose and sometimes simply a way to be able to get out of bed in the morning. It’s a journey of a father’s lesson having the gift of living with a special needs child. It is in sharing that I endeavor to spark thoughts and ideas in others so that they are also inspired to discover a path of hope.”

It started innocently enough. It’s Friday (the 13th in fact which is ironic beyond all measures) and I am parked in my home office to begin the day. I prepare to read through the list of personal emails that have filled my account since the previous morning. I’m into my typical morning routine, which involves email accompanied by some type of breakfast. I sit back in the chair with a glass of orange juice in hand and watch the mailbox slowly fill with the bold headlines of emails not yet read. I focus on the bright blue bar at the bottom of my monitor that displays the count of messages. It shows a climbing amount of new reading opportunities in the caption, “receiving message 74, 75, 76 of 106.” As an optimist, I watch and anticipate some type of interesting note that will jump start my day. Perhaps some interesting bit of news or an invite to a local group bike ride will find its way to me? As the message bar disappears signifying all messages have been received, I quickly scroll to the top and start my review. With a preview of the headlines, I instantly realize that this batch of messages brings something other than the light topics I find suitable for a morning start but instead, the heaviest of dilemmas I face. Amidst the cycling ads, latest TED talk reminder and quote for having our house painted is a smattering of ads for Father’s Day sales, one of which my cursor lands on at the top of the list.

Father’s Day… two words that evoke so much emotion. In an instant, I feel a tight sensation in my throat and quickly take a drink from the cold glass that I have seemed to increase my grip on. The cool sensation does nothing to quench the onslaught of my physical response. I sit back in the chair and force back tears that seem determined to come out. I readjust my sitting position awkwardly. The rain outside the window catches my attention. I observe it spray the landscape and can’t help but draw comparisons to the conflict that litters the horizon of my thoughts.

Father’s Day… a petulant reminder of what I have lost. I’m overwhelmed by the memories of bright blue eyes, a thundering laugh and the most charismatic smile I’ll ever know. An image of a cold hospital room with a darkness that not only reveals itself outside the window but also emanates inside the room invades the images in my mind. I force back the hideous portrait of a mother and a father as they embrace their precious child for the last time. With a horror exponentially more frightening than any fictional Friday the 13th movie could ever attempt to capture, I know this scene needs to be pushed back into the dark corner where it permanently takes up residence.

Father’s Day… the vehicle for awkward encounters and uncomfortable interactions. I think back to last year and examine my strategy to combat another unintended consequence of losing a child, which is the reaction from others. I observe with a sense of annoyance that this is a day that seems to perpetuate some type of recognition of my situation. Like two fierce adversaries meeting by chance unexpectedly, the interactions and encounters with people just seem impossibly uncomfortable. I appreciate the challenging situation and acknowledge with sincerity the good intentions. I also know that outside the cocoon of understanding only my wife and I have of our situation, there is no way to appreciate our complex journey. The plain truth is that I abhor the looks of pity and words of encouragement. Not because it isn’t appreciated, but because it’s just not necessary. Returning to thoughts of my strategy for last year, which essentially was avoidance, I fail to recall any notable results.

Father’s Day… my holiday for remembering the gift of a special needs child. A numbing sensation catches my attention. Perched on the palm of my hand that is supported by my arm resting on the chair, my chin is engulfed in that familiar feeling of pins and needles. With the realization that I have floated off into the clouds of my thoughts, I come back to the physical world and the four walls that surround me. In the reflection of a quiet laptop monitor silenced from a lack of attention over several minutes, I focus on my wide smile of recently aligned teeth appearing in the fog of the dark screen. The smile is the outward display of what I inwardly know. It’s symbolic for why I don’t want or need pity and comforting. In a slight physical gesture it reveals my grand acknowledgement that I have been given the most valuable gift. I experienced an extraordinary individual supplemented by the intensity and intimacy of care that a fully dependent child requires. He is someone that I am honored and proud to call my son. In my head, the message thunders loud and clear. I am not cursed, but blessed. I am not bereaved but inspired. I am not in a constant state of despair but on a reassuring path of hope.

I vigorously shake the mouse to bring the monitor back to life. Notwithstanding this sudden burst of activity, the sensation of exhaustion is evident throughout my body despite still being planted in my chair. As the light on the monitor grows into a recognizable list of messages, I start to read the first collection of words begging for my attention. In bold print the headline Father’s Day Sale stares back at me attempting to taunt my emotions once again. I pause and look sternly at the ad. I will always consider myself a father, I proclaim to the internal ears of my mind but direct to the unsuspecting words on the screen. It’s a gift I will forever cherish. With a slight bit of rebellion but an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment I click on the “X” next to the message sending it to the oblivion of unwanted documents. At that moment, I sense my glasses rise slightly on my nose and feel the upward pull of my cheeks. Without the benefit of a reflection due to the bright screen, I still recognize the unmistakable signs of another smile. It’s one that feels wider and more pronounced than before. While I don’t see it, I know it has a genetic familiarity reminiscent to that warm and pleasant smile that I was blessed to witness, so very alive in my memory. Though no one is around to hear, I mutter out loud with a sense of understanding and finality,  “a happy Father’s Day indeed!”

What will Father’s Day mean to you this year? Do you feel like Father’s Day is treated differently than Mother’s Day? What will you do to mark that day?