It’s almost Father’s Day, and I am sitting on the gritty beach of the Choctawhatchee Bay, watching seagulls fly. The birds are calling to each other just like they do in Jacques Cousteau documentaries.
You’ve seen the old PBS Cousteau specials. Jacques’s monotone French voice was always punctuated by screaming gulls. And he would usually say something profound like, “Ocean life, ahh, yezz.”
My father was a PBS junky. He loved Cousteau specials. He would stay up late watching those underwater films on public television. I think watching old Jacques explore exotic blue waters of Mexico made my father feel free somehow.
We hardly ever watched any other channel besides PBS. Then again, our TV only picked up three channels. Cable TV was not offered in our parts. And even if it had been, Daddy would have rather rotted in Purgatory than paid for TV.
But we always had PBS. The channel was fuzzy, but if you kicked the TV hard enough your foot would hurt and the screen would go dark.
We watched National Geographic documentaries. We watched the Salzburg Philharmonic Orchestra play Brahms. We saw all the Cousteau documentaries.
When I was a kid, I got very into those sea exploration films. Because of this I was teased on the playground for knowing about the echolocational abilities of porpoises. Billy Tolbertson told me I was a nerdy mama’s boy, which was utterly false. So I had my mother beat him up.
“SCREECH!” a seagull screams.
The seagull lands next to me on this shore. I am watching him hop around. He stays beside me.
“Ahh yezz, ocean life…” I say to him, doing my best Cousteau.
He’s not impressed.
After my father died when I was a child, I grew to hate Father’s Day. At church, I’d see everyone acting sappy about their dads and I would get so green with envy that I resembled an early model Volkswagen.
The thing is, you don’t change much when you get older. That’s part of the problem with BEING a responsible adult, you don’t always remember that you are one. And this leads to painful problems in your adulthood. Community league softball is only one example.
Certainly, when you’re a grownup you feel smarter. You can walk the walk, and you’re familiar with using grownup lingo like “W9s,” “1099s,” “income tax extensions,” and “IRS home confiscation procedure.”
But deep inside, you are childish. In fact, for all practical purposes, you ARE a kid. Except for your lower back. And your knees. Also your eyes.
But the rest of you is adolescent. You still feel the same thrill when you get a kiss on the cheek. You still love baseball. You still read Lucy Maud Montgomery. You still watch PBS specials about ocean life.
The day after my father’s self-inflicted end, my uncle took me for a walk into the woods and told me, “You’re the man of the house now.”
He wasn’t saying it figuratively. He was saying it with the same flat tone Jacques Cousteau might have used to describe the mating habits of yellowtail barracudas. My uncle’s implication was: “Your family needs you. Grow up.”
And looking back, I’m glad he didn’t coddle me. I’m glad he gave me a nudge into adulthood. I needed a push or else I would have stayed a boy forever.
Soon, I was helping my mother do the laundry and cook. And when I got older, I gave my paychecks to the family. By the time I left home, I didn’t feel like a young man anymore, and I wasn’t interested in having kids.
Don’t get me wrong, I love children. But I already felt ancient compared to my peers, and I was an elderly man around girls. I didn’t have the energy to raise a family. Plus, I wasn’t qualified.
Then I reached the age where all my friends were having babies, changing diapers, and bragging about how exhausted they were because they’d been up all night with a colicky child. And I started to wonder if I’d made a mistake not having kids.
So I had some issues with fatherhood. It took me my entire life to realize this, but I finally did. It’s amazing how blind a guy can be when he wants to be.
A few years ago, I visited my father’s mountain gravesite for the first time. I hadn’t been there since the day we scattered his ashes.
I hiked up his mountain. I looked across five states. I sat on a rock and talked to him. About the old days. About the way he used to eat peanut butter with his finger when he was drinking beer. About how he could swallow his tongue for the amusement of us kids. And about how we always watched PBS documentaries involving the ocean.
All of a sudden, on that mountaintop, I started to feel an enormous respect for the station of fatherhood.
God, it must be hard living up to the expectations of a wide-eyed child who idolizes you. And how disappointing it must be to know that you are not the hero your son thinks you are, but human.
I don’t know the first thing about being a father. In fact, I don’t know anything. But I know that a guy has to truly be brave in this world to be a dad. Even if he fails at it. Even if he screws up. Even if he breaks your heart. If he loved you, that counts for everything.
The seagull beside me leaps upward into the air. He flies away. I’m sure there’s meaning in this, but I don’t know what it is. I’ll bet Jacques would.
Happy Father’s Day.
Cathi Russell - June 21, 2020 8:20 am
Sean, you ARE a father to Sadie Mae, Otis & your beautifully worded masterpieces. You make me smile every single day, which granted isn’t difficult, but makes me happy. Thank you for being who you are. A lot of us are very grateful! Happy Father’s Day my friend!
Melanie Levy - June 21, 2020 9:49 am
You are a true wordsmith….thank you.
Ann - June 21, 2020 10:49 am
What a difficult column for you to write…I have read your book and understand how well you know yourself. You are someone to look up to with your grit, wisdom and humor…..and as a friend once told my husband..” a little bit of junior high humor is good to have”….so have a blessed day…
Lisa Perkins - June 21, 2020 11:29 am
Well, you are the father to 2 fur babies. 🐾 For what it’s worth Sean, after all I’ve read about you and all of your columns I’ve read, I think you’d be a fantastic father!
Bob Brenner - June 21, 2020 12:13 pm
Sean, my wife and I have six children and being a dad is an amazing thing. As you get older you realize how special your dad was as you were growing up! You would have been a great dad. Your children would have been grounded and really appreciated your wit and humor.
Jackie McClung - June 21, 2020 12:51 pm
Being a Dad for me has been the most fun job I’ve ever had and also the hardest.
Christine Washburn - June 21, 2020 12:59 pm
1 Corinthians 4:15
Wanda - June 21, 2020 1:37 pm
Thank you for the reference to Lucy Maud Montgomery. My mother read the Anne of Green Gables novels as a young girl when they were first published. She introduced them to me in my adolescent tears. I am 72 years of age and still reread these novels periodically. Mother has been physically gone frm us for 16 years but when I read Anne Shirley she is sitting right by my side.
Dean - June 21, 2020 2:52 pm
Great as always. Love reading your column every day
Becki - June 21, 2020 3:19 pm
This is one of your best Sean. Thank you.
Linda Moon - June 21, 2020 3:57 pm
I would have liked your father…..this fellow-PBS-junky that I am. Some fathers I knew and loved died through purposeful or irresolute self-inflicted woulds. My flawed and wounded Daddy loved me. Sometimes this daughter can’t always find the meaning of his failures. But, Lord Almighty, we loved those flawed fathers, didn’t we Sean. And they loved us back!
Linda Moon - June 21, 2020 4:05 pm
P.S. that should have been self-inflicted WOUNDS, but maybe WOULDS was somewhat of a Freudian slip….as in if they WOULD not have done what they did…what if they WOULDN’T have…….
Christina - June 21, 2020 4:36 pm
Sean, your raw, messy, and brave journey through your father wounds have shaped you into a compassionate human being. Your daddy would be very proud!
Mike Prenger - June 21, 2020 4:44 pm
Your father would burst with pride at how great a writer you’ve become! You’d be the most fun father ever!🤪
Happy Fathers Day!👌🏻
Patricia Gibson - June 21, 2020 5:23 pm
Sean I hope your memories today are good ones
Glenda Hinkle - June 21, 2020 10:37 pm
I love your honesty and no spin on how you feel. Your Dad gave you an incredible gift and for that, the world is grateful. I thank him for creating you and your writing ability. I feel Blessed every time I read your column. Something I could not do if he hadn’t given you the gift of life. I thank you, Mr. Dietrich for giving the world your son. Happy Father’s Day in Heaven.
Steve Winfield [Lifer] - June 22, 2020 12:49 am
I concur with so many. Your dad was a good guy. He had some demons like so many of us do but that doesn’t change how much he loved his family.
You’re an off the hook dad to your canine kids. In my book that’s just wonderful.
Happy Father’s Day to you! I think you deserve it.
Love & hugs from Shannon, Alabama.
Steve & Oscar.
Jess Rawls - June 23, 2020 8:58 pm
I got a text from one of my adult sons on Father’s Day, and he wrote about how I was the greatest father in the world, etc. etc. I wrote back and told him that I did the best I could at being a father and that I know that I made a lot of mistakes along the way. It was nice to hear those words, but I couldn’t live up to what he wrote. I did the best I could and I tried to be fair in all things with my kids. I can’t imagine being married and not having kids, but I know there are reasons why that happens. Being a father is a learning process that has some wonderful highs and then there are so lows as well….but overall, I wouldn’t change a thing about being a father to my three (grown) kids.
Joy Taylor-Lane - June 26, 2020 3:52 am
Good job Sean. I know this one was hard. I had a complicated relationship with my dad. He’s been gone for six years now. You’re right, just that he loved me is enough. And as a child whose parent barely survived a suicide attempt I finally accepted that she thought (in her sickness) that I would be better off without her. She thought she was sparing me. It took me a long time to forgive her. I know that your dad loves you. Then in his illness, even now, he loves you. Because I know that love doesn’t die.
Josie - July 29, 2020 10:29 pm
Even when you’re an “adult”, (don’t know the definition of that), you are always a child when you relive losing a parent, whether it be taking themselves out of this world, or taking themselves to another world where you are not invited, and abandoned. Nonetheless, loss is loss, no matter the circumstances. You could spend your whole life asking why but you won’t get the answer in this life, but maybe someday, you will. Meanwhile, don’t ever let go of the memories you have of him, that’s what keeps him alive in your heart.