The Day My Father Really Was My Dad

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I stood at the edge and looked across the pool, to where I was supposed to swim. It was only 25 yards of calm, chlorinated water, but it might as well have been the murky, choppy currents of the Atlantic.

This was the last day of swimming lessons. To pass, one simply had to swim the length of the pool – without touching the side. I was five-years-old with only one thought:

No way.

I was one of the few who had not yet reached the coveted other side. Attempts were made. I’d pump myself up with dishonest determination. But once I jumped into the pool, the panic surfaced along with my head. I don’t remember swimming more than a few yards before reaching out to the side wall, holding on to its security; safety, but also failure.

On this last day, I either complete the length of the pool and receive a fancy certificate of achievement, or I fail again and get nothing. (No participation trophies in those days.)

I jumped in. When I surfaced I looked across and that 25 yards seemed like 250. I addictively thought of the secure side wall. But when I looked to the side, I saw my father.

Dad?! What was he doing here?

My father never showed up for his kids. I was told he used to come to stuff like this, and Little League games. But, I was youngest of four boys, 4 ½ years younger than the third son (go ahead and say it, I was an “oops”), and my father’s uninterest was all I knew.

But there he was, near the deck. The only thing between me and him was the wall of failure.

Fail? In front of my dad? Before I knew it, I was swimming. My arms ached. I knew the side wall was always close by, but so was my dad.

This was a rare time for Dad. Disinterest was his usual way. Growing up, I don’t remember us being very close, and we moved further apart. He worked a lot, came home, and kept to himself. And, with his temper, that was fine with me.

Dad had a few good days and we relished when he was in a good mood. But, really, he was not such a great father, which made buying Father’s Day cards – with their sappy messages – a constant challenge. Our home was gloomy. I suspect my father did not grow up in a loving home himself because he never talked about it.

I can neither excuse nor blame my father. That’s not my call. My own calling is to learn and be better; which only took years to figure out.

Eventually, I married and had children. I had no idea what a joyful family was. But I knew I wanted nothing else. In my case, it took therapy, faith in God, a loving wife, and a boatload of trust.

You must be there for your kids. You provide for them. You love their mother. You make sure your children know their place in your heart. You do that with as much time and fatherly attention as you can muster. It’s called love.

What choice do you have? You’re not (really) a father by siring children, nor by buying them things. You’re a father by being there. I learned that lesson mainly from a father who was usually not there.

But, on this rare occasion, he was.

Back to that terrifying day as a five-year-old in the water … I kept swimming, really determined this time.

When I finally touched cement, it was at the other end of the pool. Success. I made it. Smiling, I climbed out, and my father hugged me.

I did not get my name in the newspaper for my momentous feat. There was no Facebook for anyone to brag about me. And I even lost the fancy certificate of achievement.

But the hug? I never lost that. I write this, 53 years later, and that hug is still there.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.