On Fathers

Whenever I call my father, our conversation starts out in exactly the same way. He always answers the phone as if startled to remember that it exists, clearing his throat before saying, slightly hesitantly:

“Hello?”

In turn, I reply as though I am surprised that he, in particular, answered the phone, despite the fact that I am the one who called him.

“Father!”

“Defenestrate! What’s going on?”

“Not much,” I say, “what about you?”

This conversation repeats, without fail, every time we speak. It’s a sort of ritualized dance that we do, in reverse when he calls me, regardless as to what the call is about. I could be bleeding out in a ditch in Uganda and we would still have to go through these lines before I could get to the heart of the matter.

I was thinking, the other day, about the fact that my father and I are both secretly very orderly people, with set routines in our lives which we really do not like to have disrupted. Every morning, my father gets up and brews a pot of coffee, taking a cup back to bed with him to listen to the radio and read a book, or look over student papers. It doesn’t matter if he gets up at 5:00 AM or 10:00 AM, this procedure is followed without fail. Four miles away, when I wake up, I brew a cup of tea, make up a bowl of yoghurt, and sit on the porch if it is sunny and at the table if it is not, reading while I drink tea and nibble on my breakfast. Woe to the person who disrupts either of these morning rituals.

Sometimes I think that my father and I are conservatives in rebellious clothing. Any sort of major change to the order of our day must be carefully considered before being acted on. Examples include having to fix a malfunctioning electrical circuit, going into town to purchase some vitally needed ingredient, or, god forbid, going outside the 10 mile radius of our homes which forms our habitats. Every now and then, one of us appears to do something alarmingly spontaneous, but it has in fact been carefully calculated, with all permutations considered.

I am becoming more like my father as I get older. When I was younger, I probably would have despaired at such a thought. But, when I moved home, I realized that this was not such a bad thing. As I become more like him, my temperament is mellowing, although I may never reach his state of profound unfazedness in the face of danger, whether it come in the form of a watermelon collapse at Harvest, a runaway train, or a dangling participle. I have begun to pick up my father’s speech patterns, his way of gazing blankly at someone proposing something utterly foolish, his way of offering advice on a situation without directly appearing to do so.

I always think that it’s rather preposterous to set aside a single day of the year for appreciation of fathers. The role of fathers often seems gravely underestimated, especially when it comes to single fathers struggling to raise children in a world which pours support and praise on single mothers. (This is not to say that single motherhood is easy, rather than single parenthood, period, is not easy, and fathers deserve some props too.) I am sure that I am not the only maddening, perplexing, and tempestuous child on Earth, and sometimes I wonder why my father didn’t just dump me in the library one day with a “free to a good home” sign.

I know that some of my readers have become fathers since last Father’s Day, and that they may be introspectively pondering their fatherhood at this very moment, as the greeting card industry very much wants them to do today. In a few years, they can eagerly anticipate macaroni art, graduating to useless tools and then, perhaps, phone calls. It makes me sort of sad, sometimes, that we live in a society where expressing love and respect for parents is reserved for one day in the year.

Although I am not a parent, I imagine that parents probably reflect on their awesome responsibilities at least once a day. I know that I had to hold a baby the other day and I still wake up in a blind panic, so I cannot imagine a life where I couldn’t give the baby back after it started to chew on my hair. Children, on the other hand, don’t seem to think about their parents nearly as much, and this is rather unfortunate. I think of my father at least several days a week, and sometimes I am spurred enough to pick up the phone and call him. I have greatly appreciated the way in which our relationship has grown over the years, and at least once a week I call upon my father’s wisdom to get out of a sticky situation, formulate an appropriate response to a horrifying statement, or cook a recipe successfully.

My father and my Chinese mother dropped by the other day for some peach pie, and we sat on the porch eating it while we discussed the Mystery Tree. My Chinese mother asserts that it is, in fact, a peach, explaining that multiple fruits grow on the same branch, and that you need to thin the fruits when they are young to grow big healthy peaches.

“But I think it is diseased,” I said, while my father accidentally dropped a piece of pie on his shirt.

“You need pee pee,” she says, somewhat mysteriously. Sometimes we make errors in syntax, so I wonder if perhaps she needs pee pee. “Pee pee and lots of water,” she says. “You pee in bucket, then water, no smell, big healthy peaches!”

“Ah,” I say.

“I’ll bring some fish emulsion by later,” my father offers.

“No,” she says, “pee pee.”

“Ah,” we say, before my father cuts another slice of pie. In this moment, I think about the things we have given up for each other, and I am happy.

I am hazarding a guess that all of my readers either have, are, or know fathers. I hope that all of you enjoy this delightfully commercialized June holiday, and that those of you who have fathers find time to appreciate them more than once a year.

[Father’s Day]