Happy Father’s Day.
For a majority of my life those were not my three favorite words. And there was certainly nothing happy about that day.
Well, the fact that it’s always the final round of the U.S. Open golf tournament kind of took the sting out.
I lost my father the summer I turned eleven. Almost 34 years ago. Just typing that number feels so surreal. He’s been gone for over three fourths of my life now. My memory of him seems to fade a little more as each year goes by. But then again, I did a pretty healthy amount of partying in the early 2000s. And the early 90s. Come to think of it, I wasn’t exactly a choirboy in the 80s.
Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate whether I have an actual memory of him, or if I’ve just heard a story so many times that it’s become ingrained as one. Something I definitely remember is when he and my mother took four of my siblings and me on a vacation to Florida. That’s seven people on a thousand-mile road trip. In a sedan. My father drove the first 20 hours straight, to the southern border of Georgia before turning the driving duties over to my mom. In those days a man didn’t let a woman drive until he was sure he was about to fall asleep at the wheel and kill his entire family.
After we had been there a few days, all seven of us had some kind of obnoxious Florida themed hat. Yeah, we were that family. My father was the only one wearing his hat one day while driving us around looking for a place to get ice cream.
I was in the back seat and decided I would entertain myself by piling everyone else’s hat on top of his. I was about 5 years old and back then we didn’t have iPads or DVD players or smart phones…in retrospect, we had nothing. My father was completely oblivious to the fact I had been doing this — by then he had mastered the art of being able to completely tune out his multitude of children.
He pulled into a Dairy Queen, and walked in to get us all ice cream. With seven hats on his head. Everyone in the car was laughing so hard, they couldn’t find the breath to stop him before he got inside, and knowing my family, they probably wouldn’t have even if they could’ve. We watched him become increasingly confused by the fact that everyone in the building was laughing at him and his tower of hats.
Finally, he caught his reflection in one of the windows, and actually handled it like a champ. On the way back to the campsite my mother could hardly eat her ice cream, she was still laughing so hard. It’s the hardest I have ever seen her laugh.
My dad was the kind of guy that could talk to anyone. Whenever we got to a campsite, within an hour he knew everyone’s name, where they were from, how many kids they had and what they did for a living. When he died, there was a seemingly endless line of people filing through the funeral home to pay their respects. I’d never seen so many grown men crying before. Come to think of it, I don’t think I had ever seen a man cry before at all.
Becoming a father myself was not an easy process. Seven weeks into our first pregnancy we had our first ultrasound. We heard the heartbeat, got the picture. It was an overwhelming feeling of joy and excitement. A month later at our next ultrasound, there was no heartbeat.
I’ll never forget how my wife reached over to grab my hand right before we found out. It was as if she could tell something wasn’t right. All the joy and excitement turned to sorrow and disappointment in an instant.
The days and weeks that followed were pretty dark. But we didn’t have much time to mourn because a few short weeks later she was pregnant again.
It wasn’t easy to shake the pain we were going through to truly embrace our second chance with the same excitement, but after a couple months we finally did. Just in time to be informed that due to complications my wife would have to spend the rest of the pregnancy on strict bed rest.
Three and a half months.
During that time we had numerous ultrasounds, often in the same room we found out we lost the first. We held our breath every time. Over the next two months we had to rush to the hospital multiple times, and for the final six weeks we saw a specialist every three days to see if the baby would have a better chance of surviving being taken out than being left in. Every day he could stay in meant he had a better shot.
With five weeks left to go she went into labor. All the months of anxiety were about to come to an end, one way or the other. About an hour before the delivery, an overwhelming sense of calm and peace came over me. I felt something there. A presence in the room. I don’t know how else to describe it.
The delivery itself was only about 25 minutes, but it was terrifying. With every contraction, his heart rate dropped lower and lower. I could hear the beeps from the monitor getting slower and further apart. They couldn’t get him out. One of the nurses assisting the doctor kept looking at the monitor with a panicked look on her face. At one point he backed away and told her to not let my wife see her reacting that way. At one point there were around fifteen people in the room. All I could think was, “this cannot be the way this ends.” How was I going to walk into that waiting room and tell her family that we lost him? After everything we had been through?
The doctor calmly told my wife that the baby needed to come out right now, and that he was applying a suction cup to his head. She needed one last push, and that everything would be fine. On the second attempt he finally emerged. Blue. They put him on my wife’s chest for two seconds and then rushed him to the other side of the room. After an agonizing nine or ten seconds there was a cry. My wife called over to me and asked if he was alright, and I simply replied “he’s perfect.” Two days later, we took our little four and a half pound boy home.
So what was that “presence” I felt in the room that day? Was it God? A guardian angel? My father? Or, was it just my brain producing chemicals to help me cope with a traumatic situation? I guess it all depends on what you believe in. In the end it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is a day which once brought me so much pain is now my favorite day of the year. And now I have someone to watch the U.S. Open with.
Happy Father’s Day.
Editor’s note: Brian Dunkleman is a self-described “comedian, actor, TV host, bartender and local.” While he takes a break from his hectic Los Angeles lifestyle, he has kindly offered to write a regular column exclusively for the Ellicottville Times. © 2016 The Ellicottville Times