My father died on Super Bowl Sunday. The night before, he had told me — in his signature style of sincere but “got places to be” — that he was proud of me. He then went to sleep and never woke up. Today, four months later, we celebrate Father’s Day.
I’ve always thought the purpose of Father’s Day was to give dads a nice meal. An amusing gift. A few hours of praise and priority, before the wave of ordinary life crashes us back into our routine. But outside of a few hours of smiling, there must be a deeper meaning to why we celebrate the men who brought us into this world. I’ve spent the last seven years of my career writing about the sacrifices and journeys of working mothers. Perhaps it’s time I take a moment to explore one man who shared this burden. I owe my extraordinary father that much.
Last year at this time, I would have charged into brunch, hugged my dad, given a cheers and plowed through whatever meal we happen to be serving. All the while, worrying about whatever obstacle I had on the horizon that week. I would now happily burn my career to the ground to have a day by his side. Hell, I’d sit in a crocodile’s mouth to have five minutes with the guy. If I were able to be with him on this Father’s Day, I’d express my appreciation for him. I’d absorb every moment. Ask one million questions that I was too narcissistic to ask before. I’d dance with him. Laugh with him. Hug him until he said, “Enough already,” laughing, though clearly fed up. I wouldn’t criticize his crappy diet, or waste time nagging him to drink more water. He didn’t die of dehydration, after all. I’d order us Chinese food and a couple of Diet Cokes and spend the afternoon floating happily in his company. Then again, if he was still here… I’d probably just be carrying on the way I always have. Treating this holiday like just another item on my to do list. (Cue Joni Mitchell’s “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.”)
The truest irony being that my father didn’t particularly care about this holiday. What he valued were moments of truth. Connection. This is best exemplified by his dinner party routine: He greets his guests, warm, but reserved. He wants to be moved. Hungry for the one person who can wow him with an anecdote of true authenticity. He actually eats. No conversation trumps the meal itself. If he is the host, he makes an opening speech. Something to put the guests at ease. They can sit back with the knowledge that they are in good hands. And in that speech, he taps into the truth of the room. Whether the moment calls for celebration or sympathy, he acknowledges the thissis of the evening — even if it makes people temporarily uncomfortable. And with that, the room discovers that they are somewhere important — experiencing something with meaning. He radiated pride when he could steer a room to earnest waters. I’d watch people pause, collect themselves and see my father’s true magic. His power.
This special skill set of his could be attributed to a few things: He may have simply been born with the ability to put his finger on the pulse of any moment. A superpower that he was blessed with. Or perhaps it’s a byproduct of being the son of two Holocaust survivors. After seeing such atrocities, his raised parents him with a keen understanding that every moment in life is a gift. Don’t squander it. Or maybe it was learned over the decades of storytelling he has mastered. His sharp sense of getting to the truth of each scene. Regardless of its origin, my father not only supplied it, but required it from you as well in order to make a connection.
This was a lesson that took me several years to learn. In Father’s Days past, I would stumble into the celebratory meal — buzzing from whatever life was serving me, and know that I had to tap into the truth of the meal if it were going to have any impact on my father. And the easiest trick to tapping into that moment? Looking into his eyes. My dad didn’t have standard eyeballs. He had sympathy nukes sitting in his face. The man could pull emotion from the blind with those eyes. I would stare into those things and find myself peeling open. I know he had this effect on my siblings too. I’d watch his eyes land on theirs and they’d instantly slow down, tap in and start vibrating at different frequencies. Nothing made my father prouder than when my siblings and I made speeches. His chest would puff out like a cartoon Mountie, taking in every word.
It is because of this, that I am reading this aloud right now. In the hopes that where ever is lucky enough to be my father’s new home, he can hear me. While I can’t look into his eyes, I can see them… feel them. And at the risk of making the reader temporarily uncomfortable, acknowledge the thissis of this holiday: Dad, I love you. Thank you for not only giving me the ticket to life, but also showing me why it’s valuable. I will not avoid the truth of each moment. I will tap in. And in doing so, will be that much closer to you. Happy Father’s Day.
Catherine Reitman is a writer, showrunner, actor, producer and director best known as the creator and star of “Workin’ Moms,” available globally on Netflix.