The Best Time I Ever Had With My Dad
“Bit’s bAMAZING,” my Dad blurted. He was so excited, he’d forgotten to remove the snorkel from his mouth after bursting through the turquoise surface. The sheer joy emanating from his eyes made me feel like I was the father in this scenario.
It was the happiest day I’d ever spent with my Dad.
Like many holidays, Father’s Day can feel forced. If you’re fortunate to have a great relationship with your dad, there’s no doubt he deserves it. But how do you celebrate a man who doesn’t look for appreciation, who freely gives of himself for his family…and who could care less about how trendy that tie you gave him is?
Sure, he may fly off the handle every once in a while, or discover yet another way to embarrass his kids. But most often he’s just grinding away steadily, attempting to bring some levity to mundane interactions with strangers via humor and small talk — something now derided as “dad jokes.”
So yes, finding a way to celebrate Fathers’ Day can feel a bit forced. Until you become a father yourself. When you realize that all you care about is spending quality time with your family.
There’s no better gift you can give a father than your time. But before “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin starts playing in the background, let me simply encourage you to focus less on the gift and more on how you can spend more time with him. It’s never too soon to learn this lesson.
As the fifth of six children, I couldn’t expect much from my Dad. His job as a manufacturer’s sales engineer kept him on the road quite a bit. But somehow, he was always there for me. Supporting my interests: taking me to air shows, glider lessons and the old Highway Hobby shop to get a new model airplane to build; driving me every Sunday to the BMX racetrack, showing up to every basketball game; taking an extra job to help pay for my college education. It was the epitome of selflessness.
When I began my professional career in technology sales, I could always count on him for simple advice when times were tough. When things started going well, I wanted to somehow repay him for all he’d done. After his children left the nest, he lived a simple existence — not wanting nor asking for much. At first, I thought of buying him something extravagant. Something that would grant him the stature I felt he deserved, like a fancy car. But in the end, he didn’t want that. His worked fine.
Instead, I decided to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse — a trip to the Caribbean. He’d never been, and after all he was the one who sparked my love of travel, from a Minnesota to Florida road trip, to my first ever flight — a splurge Europe trip aboard a classic Pan Am 747. “Pack a swimsuit, Dad — we’re going to Grand Cayman!” I told him.
As soon as we got to our room, we raced like kids to get our swimsuits on and headed straight to the beach. Over lunch by the pool, he pulled out one of those old AT&T tourist maps to get the lay of the land. During the next four days we explored nearly the entire island, from Seven Mile Beach to the Kitschy limestone rock formations of Hell Township and on to Rum Point.
The highlight however, was a boat tour out to Stingray City, where we swam and snorkeled amid countless stingrays. My dad used to race sailboats on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota, and while he shared my love of aviation, he was a Navy guy, serving on the USS Great Sitkin at the end of WWII. Looking at him scanning the horizon and employing all his senses to take it in, I could tell he felt right at home.
In the water, he was like a child going to the beach for the first time. I grabbed an underwater point and shoot camera to capture it, without noticing the role reversal that had taken place. After all, he was the one who’d documented all my activities growing up. Now, after so many years of watching, he was participating. He was the child again: carefree, curious, exhilarated. At the time, I didn’t realize how much it must have meant to him.
He had a horrendous childhood. His father died when he was 6. His brother (my namesake Theodore) passed away. His mother, unable to provide for him as an immigrant housemaid during The Depression, sent him to live with relatives in 1930s Germany where as an outsider, he was beaten up by other kids. He returned to the US and lived in an orphanage until his mother remarried.
Somehow, he managed to apply himself, graduating from Commerce High School in New York City two years early. He enlisted in the Navy and graduated from the Stevens Institute for Technology in Hoboken, NJ before marrying my mother Gloria and raising six children together.
After 26 years of marriage, my mother passed away. My father was crushed, flailing, frail. Losing a mother at age 12 makes you grow up quickly. Seeing what it does to your father only accelerates that process. He needed me as much as I needed him. Even so, I never thought that would lead me to play “wingman” for my Dad, as I did the evening of our stingray experience in Grand Cayman.
We’d asked our hotel front desk person for a recommendation on a local’s restaurant. He directed us to the concierge, but I said “No, I’m not looking for an air-conditioned room packed with other tourists. I want to know where your family goes when they’re celebrating a special occasion.” Surprised, he asked “are you sure?” He didn’t have to ask twice.
All this past weekend I’ve been wracking my brain and combing my journals, notes, business cards from restaurants around the world, trying in vain to find the name of that restaurant. But it was perfect. We ate local dishes of fresh fish — more soul food than tourist fare — but the meal wasn’t the most memorable aspect.
A small band started playing, and the locals began to dance. A woman came up to our table, and asked if my Dad would like to share a dance. It wasn’t surprising. If anything my Dad was always approachable, the gregarious kind of person strangers will go up to and ask for directions. His easygoing nature and smiling eyes were right at home in the laid-back Caribbean. He looked up at me to see if I’d mind sitting alone. “No, please go right ahead, Dad!”
In that moment, the humble family-owned restaurant became a movie set. A gentle breeze, starry sky and calypso rhythms were but co-stars to the main attraction: my father, smiling with his eyes closed, sharing a slow dance with a stranger that by some divine intervention had crossed our path that evening. It was the ideal end to a perfect day, filling if only temporarily that gaping hole shared by all widowers or widows — a void one’s children can’t replace.
In the years after our Caribbean trip, my Dad thanked me incessantly. But beyond that, we didn’t really talk about it much. We reverted to the typical father/son role where I was usually contacting him for guidance on some troubling issue. More recently, I would stay with him in his Hoboken apartment on business trips to New York. We’d sit in his living room silently, until I found an opportunity to get him talking about his life growing up (and fortunately recording some of it).
Our conversations were welcome reprieves from my day to day as a father. I felt like I got to be the child again, asking him about his past. And I imagine he too enjoyed the trip down memory lane, recalling childhood details with uncanny precision.
When we talked, we shared a special place where the father/son relationship didn’t exist, even though that was the very essence of the bond we were enjoying. It was like we were two dear old friends, relating in a pure way bereft of life’s demands and expectations.
We were immersed in each other’s company, just like that day on Grand Cayman so many years ago where two souls were living life to the fullest, expressing limitless joy. There is nothing more precious in this life.
It was the best time I ever had with my Dad, but there were many others that simply involved sitting down together and being present. I wish you all the gift of a Father’s presence and remembrance with whoever may be your father figure.
With love and prayers up to my father, John Louis Evers.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.