Your Father May Not Be Who You Think He Is

There were many opportunities for an inspiring Father's Day here in Ventura County -- at least according to a peppy web article promising plenty of outdoor adventures to make dads feel special -- including a round of golf on a course offering "bent/poa grass greens and Greg Norman hybrid Bermuda tees." This golf outing sounded nice when I read it, but I still have no idea what it means. I don't play golf. I am not a geneticist either, so I do not know how you can combine a human being and a golf tee.

My father might know. He is one of those quiet people who doesn't say much, but knows much. He might admit to the former, but he would never voice the latter.

In his younger days my father played a little golf and some tennis and lacrosse, too, but as soon as he finished his military service and embarked on a career he spent most of his time working to support us. I don't know what he thought each year when Father's Day rolled around and the advertising culture of Madison Avenue again suggested he be celebrated with barbecue implements, cologne, and natty apparel. I recall that he took the day off, but only because it was Sunday, and always made a mild fuss over the last minute card I made. He is not a demonstrative man.

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In the days leading up to Father's Day we are privy to endless commercials, inserts, and mailers, Dad's bouncing sons on their shoulders, carrying sleepy daughters up the stairs, entire families strolling side by side down the golf green, smiling matching smiles, and wearing matching plaids. Madison Avenue has to simplify the face of fatherhood. They only have a millisecond to grab our frayed attentions.

Anyone who isn't trying to sell you something will tell you fatherhood is more complicated. Fathers have children. It's what makes them fathers. Beyond that, there's no telling what might unfold. Some fathers leave. Some fathers don't leave, but they're still never really there. Some spend hours at the playground, some spend hours at the office; both for the same cause. And the relationship between father and child changes. Fatherhood has too many faces to define. The human soul being what it is, even one father is hard to pin down. There are too many mysteries.

My own father is a man of serious intent, but he likes fun, too. He went bodysurfing the day before I was born. He wanted to go the day I was born. He and my mother were living in Hong Kong. My father is a man who specializes in stable, common sense decisions, but he has his weak moments. Had it not been for my mother, who wisely decided they should go to the hospital instead, I would have been born on the sands of Tai Long Wan, known locally as Big Wave Bay, my mother shouting for my father's head while my father's head bobbed merrily among the waves.

My father loves to bodysurf and as soon as I could swim he taught me. I suppose he kept an eye on me in those first days: along with being sensible and stable, my father is a font of responsibility. But part of me wonders. Over the years, watching my father plunge into various oceans, I saw how he became a different man. He would ride waves for hours. After each ride he'd stand up in the inches of water in which he found himself and hitch up his suit. Then my quiet stable father would high step back out through the incoming waves as if he were four and the gates to Disneyland were closing out at sea. It is entirely possible that, in those early days, I might have drowned while he jounced merrily into shore. I say this with complete understanding for, thanks to him, I caught his disease -- and this became his nightmare. As I said, there's no telling what might unfold.

He taught me to bodysurf, and for a time, though he would never tell me so, I'm sure our communal wave riding provided him great joy. I've seen the few grainy snapshots my mother snapped, the two of us riding the same wave, grinning the same loopy grin. It was his version of bonding. My father has never said this. But now that I am a father, I have come to understand some things.

The ocean was my father's joy, but it was still only a hobby, indulged in on summer vacations or on weekends whenever a career saw us living close to the beach. But thanks to his introduction, the ocean became my obsession. A child's role is to break away, and when I got the chance I did. I went to college and studied to make a career. College summers I worked as an ocean lifeguard so that I could surf. I had a half dozen surfboards and one pair of shoes. My tongue always tasted of salt. It was all I wanted.

My father accepted this. In his mind lifeguarding was a fine summer job while I was in college. When I graduated from college, I kept lifeguarding. I finally gave that up to travel. I won't go into every sordid detail. It was a long, unseemly timeline. Let's just say that for several years I made my way in the world as a pot scrubber, landscaper, and odd jobber -- a career track that led nowhere but to the ocean's edge, which was precisely where I wanted to be. I worked in an Atlantic City casino. I wandered the edge of Australia, camping on empty beaches and engaging in intellectually stimulating pub conversations with florid faced blokes named Mickey. I might have left the pub just before daybreak, but as day dawned I was bobbing in the ocean.

I received letters from my father. They related mundane news. They almost always ended in the same fashion. I stopped reading those last paragraphs. He could harp all he wanted. I had moved beyond him, devoted to something he couldn't understand.

One night during that Australian wandering, for reasons unknown to me, I fell asleep in a cemetery in the Outback countryside. The following morning, leaving as quickly and respectfully as I could, I noticed one of the headstones. There Is No Cure For Birth and Death Save to Enjoy the Interval.

It was just the confirmation I needed.

My father did not agree. He hated the path I had chosen. It aggravated him, just as he aggravated me. He was everything I was not; dependable, responsible, organized, hard-working, financially successful. He had neat rows of suits in his closet; I once financed a week of meals using the change on the floor of my car. When we saw each other the air hummed, and soon enough, short-circuited. I was ruining my life. My father told me this dozens of times, hundreds of times, I don't know how many times, because I only remember one. Done with his lecture about opportunity passing me by, he gazed off to a place I couldn't see.

"Sometimes," he said, "I wish I'd done what you've done."

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