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.