June was always a big month in my family. My father's birthday, my birthday, Father's day and my parents' anniversary all jammed into a period of a few weeks.
Last year’s Father’s Day was a bittersweet one for me, and I imagine that from now on, Father’s Day for me will always evoke a bit of happiness mixed with pangs of grief. Last year at around this time, I was mourning the loss of my son Ezra, who had died only months earlier. Ezra’s placenta tore from the uterus a few weeks before his due date, cutting of his oxygen supply in utero. My wife had to go into labor to give birth to our son who had already died. I held him, and laughed and cried at the same time. I laughed because I was happy to see my son’s adorable, silly face for the first time, and I cried because I would never hold him again, never get to see him grow up and reach all of life’s milestones. And we buried him several days later, but not before reading him a bedtime story. And I never thought I’d have to bury my own child, ever. As I literally buried him in the ground with a shovel, at the cemetery, I felt as if I was burying part of myself as well.
For those who have lost a child, you know what I mean. For those who haven’t, I hope you never know such pain and emptiness. There is no loss greater than the loss of your child. It is the hopeless nightmare that does not subside. Eventually, you learn to live with your loss and incorporate the memory of your child into daily life. You must do so if you are to regain any sense of a normal existence, whatever normal means. You learn to live as a new person with a new sense of normal. But the pain never goes away entirely, nor should it.
So on that Father’s Day weekend of 2009, I was a father deprived of my son in physical form, though he remained buried in my heart. And at the same time, there was joy. My father was recovering from major surgery, and I had made countless trips back and forth from Philadelphia to New York City to visit him in the hospital. Though he was frail, immobile and only a hint of his formerly robust, colorful, loquacious and trash-talking self, he was still Dad. I said goodbye to him that day, wishing him a happy Father’s Day and all that. He gave me a mile-long stare unlike any he had given me before. He had a peaceful look on his face, as if somehow he was alright no matter what.
The next week my father died.
We were so different, yet so much alike, my father and I. He was a veteran and a union guy, while I have dual Ivy League degrees. While his tour of duty in the Army took him to Japan and Korea, years later I lived in Japan as an exchange student, studied Japanese in college, and worked in Tokyo for an ad agency and a bank. Both of us were blessed with a strong sense of community service. My father was active in his church and his V.F.W. post, while I became an activist, writer and advocate armed with a law degree. Both of us experienced racial discrimination, which is par for the course for black men in America. And I’ve had experiences and opportunities my father couldn’t have imagined, and yet he was partly responsible for them happening, and for my access to them.
This year, I observe my first Father’s Day without my father, who lived a full life, and a second Father’s Day without my son, who never had a chance to live life. And Dad is now looking after his grandson in that far away spirit world, which gives me some comfort.
In that year since my father left us, my son Micah was born. And what a joy he is! He seems to smile all the time, more than his father or grandfather ever could. Micah, it seems, was made to order for parents who needed smiles in their lives, and once believed they’d never laugh again. But why couldn’t I have both of my sons with me on Father’s Day?
Often I think about the fathers who lost their children, and the children who lost their fathers, whether through disease, famine, war or terrorism— or handgun violence in the streets of America, or corporate malfeasance— you know, crimes committed on offshore oil rigs or in coal mines. Fathers are separated from their children by prison bars miles away upstate, in this land of the incarcerated, or senseless permanent wars half a world away in Eurasia or Eastasia or another designated enemy.
Men who cannot be with their children, and people who are separated from their fathers might not be in the mood to celebrate Father’s Day, and that is ok. What is important is that we learn to honor and remember those we love when they are not or cannot be with us now or ever. And you don’t need a special day for that.