Yesterday my dad sent my mom and me a photo of a little menu he had drawn up: “How to entertain yourself when your wife is in Pittsburgh.” He had gone to the Ashland farmer’s market that morning — where he is a regular, making the rounds — after returning the previous night from the Vineyard, with fresh fish caught by his buddy there. The menu had smiley faces at the end of certain options. For Starters there were “Cotuit Oysters — Just Grilled :)”, Mains came with a choice of greens which included the option of “Snap Peas — as is. :)” There was Rosé from Provence to drink and “Trio of homemade cheeses by French lady from farmer’s market Ashland” as a finishing course. (He doesn’t like sweets.)
This menu ripped my heart out of my chest. I’m an easy cry — but the ‘sad dad’ phenomenon has always made me cry. “Sad dad” is not about dad being sad…it’s about a dad, any dad, being sweet, vulnerable, nice, cute, making an earnest effort. I suppose anyone, anywhere making an “earnest effort” is enough to bring me to tears. Smiley faces, tryers for happiness in the face of difficulty. It all just gets me. The first time I became aware of the emotional power of ‘sad dad’ was when I was about 10, not quite a teen but no longer a true child, and my father had secretly, without telling my mom, ordered a live Care Bear to show up at my birthday party. I was way too old for this, and when the Care Bear showed up I felt for the first time what it was to be embarrassed not only for yourself but for someone else, and wanting to protect them from feeling bad. That combination of feelings implodes inside your stomach and turns into “sad dad.” I shared this feeling with my friend Katie, who of course, as with so many things, understood completely. Over the years our moms shared in our talking about the sad dad thing and we’d send pictures or share stories. It would always be sweet and small moments — a t-shirt or a gift, a big smile and a wave. They understood it with their fathers too, and other people could be sad dads, on tv or in movies, people we didn’t know. Eventually, in Katie’s case, she had a child and experienced sad dad double-time – sad husband, sad grandpa. Even a not-so-great-dad can elicit the feeling, so long as there is a painful moment of earnest trying, even if it fails. The complicated nature of all parental relationships — the drive we have to connect, protect, forgive, we are all vulnerable to that. The resulting feeling on our parts ends up being one of wanting to hug them and cry….and of course they are always baffled. It seems like pity, I am sure. No one wants to be labeled ‘sad’ something. I have seen Katie, or my mom or dad or Andrew look at my small frame (which doesn’t seem small to me), squeeze me and say, “Oh Kitten” and I think, “What? Don’t oh Kitten me, I’m doing just fine” … No one wants to be the painful one, tugging at people’s heartstrings. But we are, and thank goodness for that, because just as everyone wants to feel loved and protected, I think they also want to do the same for someone else.
My dad has spent his life providing for me, and subsequently protecting me. At 32, I am not married yet or having kids, but waiting for a lung transplant and still dependent on my parents. I am like the family doctor around here, watching their diets and advising them on prescriptions, checking moles, doing all the worrying. Maybe it is the one way I can protect them all, until I can stand on my own and become independent. Maybe that’s where sad dad really comes from: a need to protect. I love him so much, and I suppose the things we love we want to protect, even in situations when we are not in the role of protector. My dad and I have a great time together; there are certain specific emotional moments where, despite my closeness with my mom, I find myself reaching out desperately to my dad. I am not even sure if he knows it. Perhaps they are why we chose each other in this life. We clash too, and it has made us have to try harder to achieve the friendship we now enjoy. We are a lot alike, and I think two people who are so alike do best if one is not so dependent on the other.
My dad is complicated––unafraid to change. My mom once pointed out that if he sees something he doesn’t like in himself, he will and can change it…which is pretty rare. It is true. I like to think I have inherited that characteristic. My dad always makes everything look beautiful – even if it’s just a snack of cheese and crackers, or rocks arranged on a beach, or items on a table while we’re waiting for dinner. I did not inherit that as much. He is an artist at heart who sees a unique way of combining things in everything he looks at. Lately he has been sending me cards with birds on them. My grandfather, his dad, whom they called “Gigli” (after the famous Italian tenor) because of his lovely singing voice, was a milkman who kept birds. I love birds too, like my grandfather. My dad and I seek common ground. We keep up our earnest effort, because we love each other, and of course, now, I have tears in my eyes.
And here’s to Vito, my own sad dad. Thanks for looking out for us, from wherever you are.