I remember the first time my children looked disappointed in me. It’s a look you never want to see. You know that, someday, they’ll figure out you’re just human, but you’re never ready for it when it comes — especially when it happens far too young.
It was a hot, summer day. They were badgering me to go out with them on one of their childhood adventures. But I hadn’t had a pain-free day in weeks. I hadn’t slept well for just about as long. I was at the end of my tether. I couldn’t see a way to muster the resources for that much effort.
And I snapped, “no!”
Their hurt was instant. I wished for nothing more than to take it back. I wanted to accompany them — to build some new, silly memory together. I wanted to feel like I could. But my body had betrayed me.
I will never forget their little crestfallen faces looking up at me. The quiver of their lips, a bit of extra, glistening moisture in those wide, child eyes I adored. They were crushed, and I was responsible for that. I was crushed, too: angry, frustrated, humiliated that I couldn’t find the strength to do an ordinary Dad thing that I wanted to do.
Childhood passes so quickly. In a blink, they’re already well toward the people they will be. We have to take every precious opportunity to be with them as they are becoming, before those chances are gone. And when your health gets in the way, they don’t really understand.
All they can see is the smile you’ve pasted on: “I’m fine.” (You’re always “fine.”) They don’t really want to hear what’s going on inside, and you don’t want to burden them or dwell on it, yourself. They probably wouldn’t believe you, because sometimes you do seem just fine. And they definitely don’t need the downer.
You always want to be their hero.
I wish I could say it never happened again, but it did. The people you most love must also pay the freight of your illness. The people you most want to protect are the least sheltered from the fallout. It becomes easy to withdraw because, after all, the only thing you feel you can do is protect them from another disappointment. But after one too many “no’s,” you’re afraid they just may quit asking.
You’re overloaded. Overwhelmed. You just need a day or two to recuperate and rebuild your strength, but your body won’t let you. We don’t want to admit we’re overwhelmed. Yeah, we know everyone has their challenges and we don’t want to complain. If you just ignore it — try a little harder — you’ve got to be able to muscle through it. You know that’s not true, but it’s easy to believe. It’s easy for the guilt and disappointment to drown out everything you love.
We always want to be the person who’s there to support those we love. That’s what Dads do. We’re never needful. We never want to admit that, sometimes, we need supporting, too. We must be strong, but we have to realize that the display of strength doesn’t have much to do with actual strength.
What lesson are we trying to pass on? That real strength is in perseverance. Life is brutal. Unfair. It knocks us down in surprising ways. And we get back up, even when we’re not sure how…because life is also joyful.
So everyday I keep trying. Everyday, I try to show love and engagement with the world. Everyday, I hope they’ll see me — the man who’s committed to my children. Everyday, I fear I won’t have the opportunity to show what I feel and that they will stop trying to see.
On this Father’s Day, I just want to tell my children that I love them. I’m proud of them. I’m thankful they are mine. And I’m still trying. Some days, this illness gets the best of me. But I’m always in here and I’m always trying. I’m not always the Dad I hoped I would be, but I’m always trying.
And I want to congratulate all those other Dads who are silently still trying in the face of their health conditions. We don’t talk about it. We don’t want to admit “weakness,” so it’s easy for us to think we’re alone. But there are millions of us and we are legion. Fathering in the face of health challenges is a conversation we need to have, but studiously avoid.
It’s OK to ask for help. Real men — real Dads — are just real humans, too. Sometimes, we need help. Many times, we can give that help, despite our illnesses. But most of all, we’re still trying for those we love — and that’s what makes all of you Fathers to be proud of.