5 Things We Should All Remember This Father's Day
My father was a professional sailor who spent the first half of his life traveling the world and the second half raising me and being married to my mom. He died this past February, and as shall soon be made abundantly clear, I'm not really done dealing with that. Now, you might think that writing a Father's Day column shortly after that loss is the most masochistic idea I can have that doesn't involve a bottle of iced tea vodka and a industrial-sized bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. But look at it from my perspective: I work on the Internet, and the Internet has spent the last two weeks taking every opportunity it has to remind me that Father's Day is coming, and I would very much like to punch the Internet right in its stupid face.
Not because it had the audacity to remind me of the concept of dads -- I get that the world doesn't start and stop at my whim (yet). It's infuriating because they're peddling this shallow, simplistic version of fatherhood that doesn't actually exist in the real world. And I'd like to clarify some things, but because I'm a man, the only way I know how to solve my problems is through violence. Hence, punching. With my words.
So square your jaw, 'net. This is gonna sting.
Every Father/Son Relationship is Complicated
If you're a frequent moviegoer or book-reader, or were just alive and conscious on the East Coast in 1991, you probably remember the "No-Name Storm." Or as it's better known now, thanks to that ridiculous fucking movie, "The Perfect Storm."
Ya know. This one.
My dad, Rocky, was actually in there, though. In the storm, not the movie. In the fall of 1991, he was captaining Gesina, a Hinckley Sou'wester 48 Yawl from Bermuda to St. Martin when Hurricane Grace formed right on top of his head. A wave caught the yawl broadside and she capsized, cracking the rigging and scaring the flying shit out of everyone on board. If that jargon is all gibberish to you, let me rephrase: The boat flipped upside down.
Rocky had just finished his watch, and he later told me that he rolled to the ceiling of his bunk, lay there in shock for a moment, and then rolled back down again. Then he ran up on deck and started fixing stuff, because as captain, that was his job. He kept that boat afloat for another decade, and as far as I know, she's still floating.
There she is, not sinking.
He also spent a night as Elton John's bouncer, saw Bob Marley perform in Maui, fought a wild boar once and drove a Triumph Spitfire when he was first breaking into professional sailing. My point is, I know that a lot of kids think their dad is the coolest guy in the world, but when your father's name is Rocky Sargent and he's a professional yacht captain who grew up surfing, sailed around the world twice, and survived capsizing in a hurricane, you're kinda right. And at that point, it becomes sorta daunting. I have some friends who had really ambitious, authoritative fathers who insisted that they spent their weekends studying, or had visions of them going to medical school. They'd tell me about these concerns, and then qualify it with "You don't get it -- Rocky's so chill, you probably don't have to deal with any of that." And I didn't. But I had to deal with something weirder.
Have I mentioned I grew up on a sailboat yet? I never know how to work that in naturally.
I remember crawling into Gesina's bilge, trying to get at some part that my dad couldn't reach. I won't specify what part because it's not important. It took me a lot longer than it should have. After repeating the same instructions over and over, he finally got frustrated and growled, "I'm just trying to get this goddamn boat ready."
"And I'm trying to help you," I said. But I was never as good at those kinds of things as he wanted me to be.
I read Lord Of The Rings at least twice before my tenth birthday, and spent most my weekends parsing through the mythology of Starcraft. I always sucked at sports and was generally awkward around girls. Despite my dad and I trying to connect, to understand each other, there was a fundamental disconnect that can't be blamed on either of us. He didn't understand why I didn't love sailing as much as he did. He didn't know why I never got into surfing. He hated video games, movies, and punk rock. Man, those italics can't even begin to do his disdain justice, which sucked for me because video games, movies, and punk rock were my favorite things. My point is, I had one of the most cool and dedicated dads possible, but it genuinely seems weird to me when someone talks about hanging out and indulging in a fun hobby with their dad, because after age 13, if I wanted to hang out with him, that meant meeting him on his terms. Which meant taking a job with him. So because I was a teenager and kind of a stubborn, arrogant cock-hole, I just didn't spend time with him.
I wanted the chance to prove that my weird little interests could matter. I figured that'd happen when I got older.
Guys Are Taught Not To Communicate
In October of 2013, I found out that my dad emphatically did not have pancreatic cancer. I was living in Seattle, and weeks earlier my parents, in Massachusetts, had just had a scare that they didn't tell me about. Doctors found a thing and weren't sure what it was. After extensive tests and consultation with quite a few doctors, one finally said, "I know what cancer looks like, and that isn't it."
"In fact, according to my tests, you are a medium-sized dog in mid-leap. I went to medical school."
In case you don't know, the most distinct aspect of pancreatic cancer is that it kills the shit out of you, and it kills you fast, and it doesn't care who you are. Because there are no standard diagnostic tests, false negatives and false positives are common. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear, because it's a random mutation in our biology and not subject to emotions. It's really fucking stupid, guys. There's no setup, no pay off, no emotional or narrative resolution -- it just happens, out of nowhere, with a comical disregard for the general theme and emotion of the world around it, like that scene where Brad Pitt gets hit by two different cars in Meet Joe Black.
Not this one. But you know the one.
I didn't know that then, though. I was just standing outside my favorite working cafe, listening to my mom almost cry, trying to think of anything to say. I couldn't. Then my dad got on the phone, and I'm pretty sure I said, "Wow, man." Then he said something like, "Yeah, man. I dunno. It's heavy," because when my dad wanted to be serious, he sometimes talked a little bit like Paul Walker's character in The Fast And The Furious.
I remember in that moment that I really wanted him to come out and visit me. Since I left home, I'd lived in New York, Washington D.C., and Seattle, and he'd never come to see any of my new homes. He had encouraged me to pursue my writing career, and at that point it was going better than any of us expected, and I really wanted to show him that "Sure, try to convince people to give you real money to write jokes about movies" hadn't turned out to be the objectively terrible decision that it looked like. I mean, I didn't own a car, and my house had no heat and a broken window, and one of my roommates eventually started a sex cult in our living room, but I was able to feed myself and stay warm, and that's a fucking win in my book.
"Criminal record okay! Bad credit okay! No cats."
I didn't ask him to come visit, though. I knew he didn't have time, and I didn't have anywhere for him to stay because I barely had anywhere for me to stay. And I didn't want to go back to New England, because that felt like showing weakness. Like it was proof that I was still a kid and needed comforting after this kind of scare. If my dad couldn't come to visit, then I'd show him how fine I was by not coming home. See how that logic works? Shut up, yes you do.
I hate that decision now, but my head was all clouded up. It's weird to hear huge, non-bad news like that. I wanted to feel relief, but there was no buildup of tension first, so hearing that my dad wasn't going to die in a couple years was just immediately exhausting. Maybe I stayed home because I was tired.
I don't remember where I was when I found out that the doctor had been wrong.
Fatherhood Is About Little Moments
My dad worked through the last Christmas he spent with us. That's how we do things in my family -- it wasn't an affront to us that he did that, and it wasn't "how he showed he cared" or something (even though he most certainly cared), I just don't think he knew how to take a sick day or shirk responsibility. I should probably mention that we spent that Christmas in Bequia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, because that's what "work" meant for my dad: busting his ass on a beach in the Caribbean. Behind the scenes in other people's favorite memories.
Because teenagers can bitch about anything, I spent most of my childhood whining about how I never saw movies right when they came out.
The last day before we left, my dad walked through the vacation home he had been managing, saying goodbye to the workers he managed while I followed him. We were both barefoot on hot rocks and sand. The people he worked with were so reserved that I started to wonder if they knew that he wasn't coming back in the Spring. Then one of the taller workers, I'll call him Roy, shook my dad's hand, and as he said goodbye, his voice cracked and he began to cry. He walked away, embarrassed, but my dad found him, grabbed his shoulder and said, "Hey. It's gonna be alright. Keep things running." Roy wiped his nose and smiled.
If you're looking to get into it, one big thing in sailing (or any contract work) is being easy to work with. My dad was a great sailor (there are trophies all through the Caribbean with Malolo, our boat's name, carved into them), but more importantly, he was fun. I never saw him scream at anybody he worked with, not even that time a guy poured a vat of flammable paint thinner while smoking a cigarette next to several jugs of gasoline. People liked working with my dad, and to lose him was to lose both a coworker and a friend at once.
I'm not kidding about the paint thinner. The Caribbean doesn't have the highest regulatory standards for ... anything.
People think that people who make work too big a part of their lives can't be good parents. There's a schmaltzy Harry Chapin song about it, I think Nicholas Cage learns this lesson in at least one movie, and Jurassic World has an entire subplot about how career women need to either learn their place or be eaten by a Pteranodon. But I think the "it's impossible to be a good parent and have a career" bullshit stops making sense once you move out and realize how valuable it is to have not only a paycheck, but a job that makes you smile so you don't have to plaster on a fake one when you get home late. My dad didn't know how to let people down, and I owe a lot of happiness to that.
Family Is Important Whether Or Not You Buy A Stupid Card
I have a pretty nasty anxiety disorder. In college, it was diagnosed as "mild," then later as "moderate," and now doctors can't figure out what medication to give me, and also I refuse to take pills because the idea of taking medication sometimes gives me a panic attack wheeeeeee this is fun. Some of my strongest childhood memories are lying awake, staring at the ceiling, hoping that my parents wouldn't die. Or that my brother wouldn't die. Or that my cat wouldn't die. Or that the boat we lived on wouldn't randomly spring a leak and sink, dragging the only home I'd ever known down into silty blue silence and leaving me and my family treading water, kicking off barracuda, and feeling a bit dumb.
If you have any anxiety issues, then you know that the thing worrying me was pretty secondary -- the anxiety comes first, everything else after. But when I was lying there thinking about my parents dying, I realized that I was way more scared of my mother dying than my father. I had, I guess, picked a "favorite." And it wasn't my dad because he didn't really "get" me, and I didn't really "get" him.
"No, I 'get' you fine, son. I'm just saying that your beard looks like Sunday-morning scrotal trimmings."
Are other people familiar with the sensation of feeling intense guilt over a thought you've had, or is that just one of the things that makes me a crazy person? I can't remember. I always hated myself for making a decision like that. But whatever. Little-Kid-Me can be forgiven, hopefully, because again, he was kind of a jackass. Not about which parent I'd rather not lose, but about the concept of loss itself.
No two deaths are the same. Like most people, I've lost friends and family members to car accidents, alcohol, old age, gorillas, drugs, random chance -- so I know that as tempting as it is, it's actually ludicrous to compare one incident to another. While losing a parent hits harder than losing a friend, losing a parent also makes more sense, in a weird way. Your parents are supposed to die before you, while your friends aren't supposed to die until you're both too old for this shit, or at least in some sort of dramatic self-sacrifice or on top of an exploding building. It shouldn't just be out of nowhere, mid-sentence. It should signify something more than nothing.
Again, imagine the other GIF.
But in the important ways, they're all the same. They come too soon and they don't make sense and they don't come with a thematic conclusion or a lesson or even change anything, necessarily. My day-to-day life would be exactly the same if my dad were still around. When he left, my slice of the world didn't finish a story -- it just ended one, and now everything else is just hurtling along with all the same speed but far less weight.
I knew losing my dad would be hard, but I didn't know I'd walk around for days feeling like my head was going to explode. I didn't know that I would feel alone every moment of every day. I didn't know that I would hate to hear him talk because the weakness in his voice reminded me that he'd be gone soon and that in most ways, he already was. I didn't know I'd spend every single day since he left wishing that I could get his advice on what air conditioner to buy for my new apartment, or whether I should go with a Honda or a Toyota, or just complain to him about what a pretentious, idiotically hyper, stupid fucking city Los Angeles is. I didn't know how badly I would wish that I had written more about sailing or surfing or travel or something he could've cared about, so that we could've talked about my work without me feeling like he was faking interest for my benefit. Now I know he was proud of me because he told other people he was and then they told me but that's different.
The Stuff That Matters Isn't What You Think
Dying sucks. I'm not going to put the hard details in here, because I do have some sense of privacy somewhere around here. But rest assured that it's worse than you're imagining. If you're lucky enough to die in a comfortable bed surrounded by your friends and family, your biology does its absolute best to take your dignity away first, because biology is a cock-waffle. And I'm not just saying that because I got a C in that class in high school.
But helping someone die isn't for them, because for most of it, they're going to be either horribly embarrassed or checked out. It's for the person doing the helping. When I say my dad was a good dad, I mean he worked his goddamn ass off to give me the kind of fantasy fucking childhood that will change the way I see the world for the rest of my life. I got to see more of the world by age eight than most people see in their entire lives. He never made a lot of money, but he was crazy responsible with it (the guy was a goddamn savings ninja), so he paid for most of my school, and I was able to graduate college with debt that's only barely crippling. He stopped traveling and partying as much as he wanted for me, and that's not a small thing. He helped my mom run a family that was far from conventional, but still managed to work in its own weird way, floating around the tropics on a 39-foot C&C from the '70s with only 75 gallons of water, 25 gallons of diesel, and a wind generator.
Here's what that looks like.
In fact, he did such a good job that I'm pretty sure my collection of neuroses aren't his fault at all. Even if we had trouble seeing eye-to-eye on how good Rage Against the Machine was (they're great), he was a good dad who gave a shit about my happiness. And how rare is that? I think there have been like five of those ever.
Those are actors.
So I dove into all the weird medical stuff face-first. "Okay," I said, sanitizing my hands and putting on tight rubber blue gloves, then realizing I had to pee and deciding to hold it because this was more important, "So this plugs into him here, and then I turn that, and it fills up with ... wow, that's a weird color." Let's just stop there. The point is that I was lucky to get to do that. It feels insensitive to point that out, because there's a lot that's shitty about this. But still, I got to say goodbye. And I'm lucky for that opportunity, and for having the support from my friends and family that I needed to jump into that, if you'll excuse me, big ol' pile of shit.
When things were really bad, I spent a lot of effort just trying to make him comfortable. After working at the same simple task for far longer than it should have taken, my dad finally got exasperated and snapped, "I'm trying to die here."
"And I'm trying to help keep you comfortable," I said.
I hope this weird little article reminds you to call up your dad today, or to drop by with a bottle of whiskey or something. Or to just just look past his screw ups and the walls between you and acknowledge that even really great families can be messy. And if you're reading this and getting jealous because of how much cooler my dad was than yours, then hahaha, just wait until I tell you the story about the wild boar.
12/1/1957 - 2/20/2015
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