An Open Letter to My Dad
Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me. – Fred Rogers
One of my favorite scenes in a work of fiction comes from David Eddings’ fantasy series The Belgariad. In one of the books the protagonists must make their way though a village that, unbeknownst to them until they enter it, has been stricken with a plague. In danger of being infected, they find a series of tunnels and quickly make their way out. As they are travelling, however, they hear a baby crying. It becomes clear that the baby’s parents have fallen to illness and the child is now alone, and scared and probably in pain. The heroes, all either great warriors or sorcerers (or a great sorcerer in training), many of whom have dealt directly with angry gods, desperately wish to help the child but can’t. The child is infected and not only would an attempt to rescue the baby be fruitless, but likely kill all of them as well. So while they press on for the sake of the world, the heroes are anguished by the fact that they must leave the child, more so than during any of the battles or losses they endure in the name of saving all of humanity.
This isn’t a favorite scene of mine because it’s enjoyable. In fact, quite the opposite – it’s terrible to think about. But it is an amazing piece of writing because it is so powerful and evocative. The description of them walking past the child lasts no more than a paragraph in a series that spans five books and then spins off into a second five book series as well as two stand alone prequels. But that one scene stuck with me, because it highlights an integral aspect of humanity: the frailty and helplessness of children, but also something else – their immense importance and power.
This has been a good week for thinking about fatherhood. Last Sunday was Father’s Day, a holiday that generally gets less of a spotlight than its matronly counterpart but deserves just as much attention. Then I sunk several hours into playing The Last of Us, which is entirely about fathers.
Oh, sure, there are zombies that have scales grown over their eyes and can’t see but hear every footstep you take, or marauders who attempt to murder you at every turn for the two or three bottles of rubbing alcohol you’ve managed to scavenge, and you spend a lot of time fighting or sneaking past them. I’ve stomped in the faces of many a zombie so far, or thrown smoke bombs so I can disorient a bandit before rushing him with a baseball bat I’ve taped a shiv to. That’s what happens during the time when you are actually playing the game. But that’s window dressing – survival is what the game is, not what it is about.
I won’t get into spoilers, but the game basically announces fatherhood as a theme immediately and just goes deeper into it from there. Naughty Dog has done a sublime job with crafting a relationship between two characters (much like TellTale accomplished with Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead) and, if you have a heart, you find yourself changing the way you play to look out for Ellie. Yes, you can violently kill every enemy you come across. Sometimes they force you to by setting an ambush. But when you do kill someone (and the fighting in this game consists almost entirely of very short bursts of extreme, realistic violence that takes a toll on you if you attempt to play the game as a fighting game) Ellie has a very real sounding reaction of disgust and horror. It would be easier to clear a stage if I strangled all the bandits on the map, but instead I replayed levels over and over again trying to sneak past someone because I didn’t want a (digital) fourteen-year-old girl to witness such an act.
Like the scene in The Belgariad, parts of this game will probably stick with me. Again, this reflects the strength of an emotional bond on can form with a child. Even when it’s complete fiction, the desire for us to watch over the young is compelling. And so, after all this introspection, in this week of dad, I thought of my own.
I have never met my biological father. He left before I was born and never looked back. And, to be frank, I have no interest in ever meeting bio-dad. There have been times when morbid curiosity left me to wonder what it would be like to see him, but to actually meet him – get introduced, sit down, have a conversation? Zero interest. And not in a “I’m so pissed at him I don’t want to see his face” kind of way, but just such a level of meh that I never think about it.
I don’t have to think about it because I have a father. I have my Dad.
Most parents don’t get to choose their child. That’s not to say that the majority of children are unplanned, but when your parents decided to have a child they didn’t choose you, they chose to have a kid and you’re what turned out and they’re kinda stuck with you so there. They didn’t get to know you, spend time with you, figure out your personality first and then, after taking it all in, choose to be your parents.
My Dad did.
He and my mother got married when I was four. He got to meet me and see me when they were dating, and he still decided to marry her. He adopted me, gave me his name and his legacy. Took me in and chose to be a father to me, and me specifically.
I may not have been a child infected with a deadly plague, but I still killed the man Dad used to be. Fatherhood does that. You’re no longer just you; you’re somebody’s parent with all the responsibilities, pressures, fears and surplus joy that comes with the position. And he chose to take on all of that willingly.
No, we haven’t always had a perfect relationship. Who has? Man is a fallen creature and we won’t see perfection in how we relate to one another on this side of Heaven. My hobbies line up more with my mother’s so, in one sense, there’s always been more for her and I to do together and less my Dad and I can find in common. But through it all he has continuously chosen to love me and be my father. He could have kept on being a bachelor and doing what he wanted with his life, but instead he decided to spend evenings helping me build school projects, or letting me choose what to watch on TV, or being tortured because I needed someone to go see the Pokemon movie with, or dropping what he was doing to come to my aid after the two car accidents I’ve had (in his cars). He didn’t have to have any of that, but he chose to.
And isn’t that the essence of love? We’ve seen such a spike in the divorce rate in this country because we’ve got this notion that love is a feeling. Feelings are fleeting, and if we rely on them they will let us down every time. Maybe Dad felt a lot of pride when he signed the adoption papers, or joy, or excitement. Maybe just trepidation and nervousness. Hell, probably all of that. I don’t know how he felt. But I know since then I’ve put him through times where I’m sure he struggled with it. Just like all parents occasionally struggle. But toughing through the hard times and choosing to keep loving someone, damnit, no matter how difficult they make it or what else you could have in your life instead- that’s real love. And that’s love that will reward you tenfold for the effort you put in it. I hope I am (and think I have been) rewarding to Dad, and better than the alternative of not having me around. And I know for a fact that my life is infinitely better with this wonderful man in it than it otherwise would be.
So thanks, Dad. I love you. I hope I can continue to make you proud and that one day I can be even just half as courageous as you are capable of being.