Dear Dad: Thinking About Karma on Father's Day

Filed under: Holidays, Opinions

Sid Biberman and his granddaughter, Lucy. Credit: Matthew Biberman

I am a father and I am a son. My father, Sid, lives with me and has since 2001. Back then, I was 34 and deeply resented this turn of events. People I knew assumed that somehow I had failed and had to boomerang back to live my dad.

This is the story our culture has come to expect. It is the child who fails. It is the father who is there to pick up the pieces and provide the safety net. It is the father who is always right. But, in my case, it was wrong. After suffering a heart attack, Sid ended up under my roof. I was the responsible one, I had the job, I had the mental abilities needed to keep track of the meds, the appointments and the bills. Why didn't anyone see that? Often, I found myself seething at what I took to be a false picture of myself as a failure.

The same year Sid came to live with me, I became a father. My daughter, Lucy, was born. And, for the past nine years, we have celebrated Father's Day in our own way, turning the event into another fun activity for Lucy.

First, it was an opportunity for her to give me a present. As she got older, it was an opportunity for her to go shopping with her mother to buy me a present. And then, still later, it was an opportunity for her to decorate the house as children like to do and throw me a brief party during which I opened my present.

She and her mother would make me a cake. As the party's main event, we would sit and eat, completing the picture of a happy family celebrating Father's Day. Then Sid would walk back over to his side of the house and, later, I would go over and thank him for attending the party.

He would comment that Lucy enjoyed it and we would talk about how much joy she made for everyone in our little suburban house. Then I would wish him happy Father's Day and lay out his evening's assortment of medication.

But this year it will be different. This year, Lucy will wake up on Father's Day in her mother's apartment and, later in the afternoon, I will drive over and pick her up and we will do something together. We will probably swim and then take Sid for some ice cream, just the three of us. And we will have a good time, or try to.

And now I wonder -- who, really, is the worse father? For years, Lucy knew the relationship between her parents had fallen apart. Five or six years ago, Martha had taken her to a visit with her own therapist where Lucy had sat and played -- this was when she was very small -- and she had gone through all the permutations of playdates in the house: She played with everyone, her father and grandfather played, she played with Mom, but her mommy and daddy, they never played together. From that point on, Martha and I knew it was just a matter of time before Lucy matured to the point where she understood that her parents were civil, even friendly, to each other, but they were not in love.

We wondered when the day of revelation would come. It happened at the start of this past school year. Lucy had to make a poster about herself, a display of things she liked and her dreams, and she wanted to add to her list of wishes the wish that her parents would get a divorce.

At that point, there was no hiding the situation from the child. If we kept on with things as they were, Martha and I knew the ones we would be lying to were ourselves. And we began to feel that the worst thing you could do was raise a child in a home without love, or, more precisely, a home where all the love goes through the child. Based on my own experiences, I felt there were few things worse you could do to a child.

So the upshot is that it was not long after Lucy made her poster that Martha asked me one night if I thought the time was right for her to seek out the services of a Realtor to help her look for an apartment, and I agreed. We are still young (or young at heart). We both deserve a shot at happiness. And it is the best thing for Lucy, given the situation.

She no longer throws herself to the floor in tears when she watches her parents fight. She no longer yells, "It's me! I am the reason you two hate each other." And I think she truly understands now why I would then hold her and say, "It's not you. It was never you. It was always us."

And, so, on this Father's Day, I find myself wondering about karma. How angry I was at the thought that I had screwed up. How could people think I was the bad son? I wasn't! I had done everything right! I was the good son who had allowed his father to live with him! Couldn't people see that?

But now I no longer hear those voices. Instead, I hear a voice inside and it says, "How dare people think I have somehow screwed up. How dare they think I am the bad father."

Sometimes I want the voice to go away, but I know it won't, at least not on this Father's Day, and probably never.

Matthew Biberman is a professor of English at the University of Louisville, where he teaches British literature with a focus on Shakespeare. He is the author of "Big Sid's Vincati: A Father, A Son and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime" and co-editor (with Julia Lupton and Graham Holderness) of the forthcoming collection "Shakespeare After 9/11." Read his blog on Red Room.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.