I Love my Dad, but Father’s Day was Hard

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Bethany Olsen -Father's Day4

When I was growing up, my dad was a mental health counselor who ran miles and miles every week and had his own home gym. His happy place was puttering around home depot, where he would inevitably come home with new plants and supplies for his endless gardening projects. Our place was pretty much a Better Homes and Gardens ad because he wasn’t just into planting foliage and letting it go. He created ponds and waterfalls, and would forage our local beach for artistic driftwood and rocks. I spent many a weekend helping him drag home his finds, or raking leaves in our local parks so we could use them to cover his gardens in the winter.

He created the world’s largest vegetable garden. I have memories of being annoyed I had to regularly go out to pick strawberries or salad supplies, but now I’m trying to channel that memory with tiny lettuce plants on my patio. I get one salad every two weeks, and it makes me feel ridiculously accomplished.

I’m a lot like my dad in many ways. Though my version of a home gym is my lone exercise bike and my version of a garden is triumphantly keeping three lettuce plants alive for a summer, he and I are both heavy feelers, very opinionated, and crusaders. We both have a compulsive need to fix things and try to save the world. We are not terribly light-hearted people, truth be told, but we get each other’s crazy.

 As we roll through June and the second Parent Holiday month of the year, Facebook is flooded with homages to the world’s best dads. They’re lovely, but with every year that passes I become more ambivalent toward this day that celebrates dads, because I find myself in a new and strange space with my father.

He  is now in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s Disease and has a form of dementia that brings intense mood swings along with it. He was diagnosed when I was seventeen, and since that point, I haven’t really had him around in the ways I assumed I always would when I was younger.

One of the hardest parts of dealing with my dad’s illness is giving myself space to admit he’s not who he once was. We’re bad enough at mourning people when they are gone, but it’s even harder and more awkward to mourn a person while he is still here. It’s not a socially understood grieving period, but I have lost the father I had before the illness took over. I would absolutely never want to fault my dad for being limited by his disease. It’s not his fault. But the Dad who was there for me growing up is gone and in his place is someone I can’t count on.

Allowing myself to feel grief for that loss can seem both dramatic and disloyal. And yet, the facts remain. My family has lost the version of my dad that was him for so long, and it’s been replaced with a man that I’m not sure he himself would recognize.

He has spent so many years being there for me and beyond that, I firmly believe our worth as humans doesn’t depend on our ability to perform. Our limitations don’t make us any less valuable and worthy of love. He is so worthy of celebration just as he is today. But I still miss my dad. I can’t help wondering what it would be like to still be able to go out to breakfast with him and talk about life, or wander around Home Depot for hours on end looking for the perfect garden fixtures. I just flat-out miss those moments I know I’ll never get back. I wonder what kind of relationship my dad and I would have today if we could.

This month, as we celebrate dads, let’s take a moment to give ourselves a break, too—all of us for whom this holiday brings Big, Complicated Feelings. Let’s allow time to mourn the hard spaces of being a parent, having a parent, not being a parent, or not having one. It’s all a little difficult, isn’t it?

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