Father Figures

Two tales of fathers and sons.

I dreaded Father’s Day. Dad died when I was eight years old after a bitter fight with cancer, dealing my family—in particular, Mom—a blow that forever changed the course of our lives. Mom was the definition of a quiet, gentle soul, and the loss of her husband was so staggering she never fully recovered. She rarely talked about Dad in any detail when I was a kid, and as a result, I hesitated to ask any questions about him.

Father’s Day became the intrusion that upset our carefully constructed defenses. I can remember sitting cross-legged in front of our giant console television—back in the days when children served as remote controls—and wincing when a commercial for Father’s Day gifts would come on. It wasn’t so much the pain of his absence that I felt; it was that I ached for my mom all over again. I also felt—what’s the right word?—embarrassed, as if I had been caught watching something I shouldn’t. I would look away from the screen and pretend to occupy myself in some distraction, desperate for The Jeffersons or The Dukes of Hazzard to return.

I say this not to be morbid—as the proud parent of two young children, Father’s Day now brings me immeasurable joy—but to explain why I was so moved by Stephen Harrigan’s exquisite story “Off Course,” about his own father, who died before Harrigan was born. Though our fathers’ deaths were separated by more than three decades and vastly different circumstances, the emotional struggles Harrigan faced in understanding his mother’s sadness and learning about the father he never met were immediately familiar to me. And while he rightly attributes much of his mother’s reticence to the post–World War II era, I had so many long-forgotten memories spring into my own consciousness while reading his essay that I realized we all share a deeply held aspect of grief.

Harrigan has long been one of my favorite writers—Texas Monthly is always better when his byline appears in our pages—and I often tell him with a mix of awe and frustration, “You just make it look so easy.” I know this one wasn’t easy for him, and I’m proud that he gave us the chance to publish it. I hope it will affect you as much as it has affected me—and open up a whole new perspective on Father’s Day.