In the first few years after my dad died, Father’s Day was a sentimental time full of heartache and wistful reflection.
My memories of Reynaldo Eduardo Breton were idealized in my mind in the same way many of us glorify our dead. We paint pretty pictures of them, not so much for them, but for us. We do what Disney does in that we smooth off the rough edges of complicated stories to create gleaming re-creations that are inspired by – but not completely faithful to – real events.
With Father’s Day almost upon us, I’m realizing that I’m beyond such distortions nearly seven years after my dad died. Remembering my dad honestly is far more useful as my own responsibilities as a father grow more challenging.
For a long time, I struggled to reconcile my guilt for not doing more to spare my dad the physical pain he felt as his body failed in that last year of his life. I have images of him in my mind that do not need to be re-created here, but they remind me of how useless we can feel when someone close to us has suffered on our watch.
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The mournful platitudes we offer in times of grief and remembrance are often attempts to mask painful truths. In fact, you can read these platitudes on pretty much any given day in the newspaper. The adults inhabiting the tragic orbit of Jadianna Larsen, the 6-year-old girl whose burned and lifeless body was found in Glenn County last month, have described her as an “angel” who had that “glow, that aura.”
“Jadianna radiated light, joy, happiness and caring, and loved the adults in her life,” an uncle said.
Contrast those words with the Sacramento County Child Protective Services case files on Jadianna’s life that were documented in The Sacramento Bee:
“Jan. 18, 2012: A report of general neglect and inadequate supervision states that the 3-year-old child was seen in a residential facility’s community room with people who were looking at pornography on a computer.
April 12, 2012: Also at age 3, she was reported in the company of someone using marijuana.
Oct. 10, 2013: At 4 years old, she was reported sitting outside an apartment crying at 1:50 a.m.
March 17, 2014: A report was received of a registered sex offender in the home.
April 22, 2015: The child reportedly was found alone in an apartment in an independent living facility.”
Truthfully, I can’t stomach this story anymore. It’s about dysfunction and a tragic failure of adult accountability that resulted in an innocent child being killed and burned and left on the side of a road in a remote, rural area. We often rely on cliched language in situations such as these because specific words paint a troubling picture where no one is spared judgment.
If my dad were alive, I think I know what he would say. He would grieve for the child and have harsh words for the adults. But he would resist feeling superior. He used to say that being responsible for a child was the most difficult task in the world because you could give everything you had, and it still might not be enough.
Those words used to make me laugh when he would hurl them at me like imaginary rocks at my fat, teenage head. Now they ring in my 52-year-old ears as each passing year moves faster and becomes more complicated when raising my own kids.
Now I’m the old man.
Now I’m the one who understands nothing.
Now I’m the nag.
Suddenly, every stupid sentence I say is recited back to me verbatim – and it makes me sound like a complete idiot. Suddenly, I’m fearful of everything. I worry about everything. And my attempts at deep conversations filled with meaningful truths are not greeted with gratitude – but with intense desire to change the subject.
I’m less than a dozen years into fatherhood, and I’m hanging on by my fingertips – and the hard part has only just begun.
Like my dad, I don’t feel superior to anyone, especially those who’ve lost their kids prematurely. But I privately roll my eyes at those parents who are constantly bragging about their kids or who walk around with that unmistakable smugness of someone who believes he or she is doing everything right.
If you aren’t a humble parent now, you will be one day.
As my family marks another Father’s Day without my dad, this one more than the others is dedicated to who he really was beyond the sentimentality. Dad could be mean, spiteful, crass, small and vindictive. He had many moments that, if committed to words, would not make him seem like he was a good father.
But he was. He was loving person. But even more important, he was committed and present.
By the time I left his house, I was ready to start my own life.
It sounds so simple, but it’s the hardest thing in the world for a parent to do for a child.