One of the 21st century’s catchier ideas was the 10,000-Hour Rule, based on a study by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers. The rule claims that a tidy 10,000 hours of dedicated instruction in any field transforms the practitioner into an expert. By that now-partially discredited metric, I’m something of a super-duper, mega-genius, Michael Jordan-level expert in one particular area: informing people that my father is dead.
I started out like any rookie, awkwardly prefacing the reveal with some self-conscious spiel intended to blunt my companion’s invariably downbeat reaction — something like “I don’t want to make you sad, but I have to say something sad, so I’m sorry, but it’s really not a big deal, seriously.” Over time I figured out I wasn’t really fooling anyone with all that, and shed the shtick for a blunter “my dad actually died when I was in college” whenever required. A couple thousand reps later, I know exactly when to bring it up without even thinking about it, freely dropping the fact into the flow of a conversation as necessary, which it inevitably is when familiarizing a stranger with the details of your life.
I don’t say that to seem glib, or “over it.” Obviously, I’ll never be over it. My father’s surprise death, from a heart attack that occurred as he was riding the train to work, remains one of the two or three most significant moments of my life. In a few hours, my perception of the world was refracted and reconstituted into something alien that required years of conversation and self-reflection to adequately process. I continue to process it as I grow older; I will probably continue to process it anew for the rest of my life.
Sometimes, you don’t have time to get into all of that; what you need is to inform someone of the simple truth, which is that your parent is dead. And over enough time, given enough repetition, you can learn to think of it in functional terms, something that never seemed possible as you laid in bed on the day it happened, working up whatever it took to call your closest friends and force out the words bringing them up to speed. It becomes a fact like anything else, incapable of swaying your mood as you say it. Nice weather we’re having. The train is down this weekend. My father died 12 years ago. It’s really not a big deal. Seriously.
And so, every year when Father’s Day rolls around, I don’t get too deep in my feelings about being unable to fully participate in a holiday that, like Joe Biden’s legislative history, becomes impossible to ignore. Over the last few weeks, I’ve received about 50 emails reminding me to send a card to “dad,” or buy him a set of personalized golf clubs. On Sunday, I’ll open up my social media feeds to find dozens of my acquaintances posting old photos of their fathers back when they were youthfully handsome, accompanied with some earnest caption like “I’m so grateful for this man, who taught me so much,” or if they’re ironic and trying to avoid the stench of sentimentality, “#tbt to when my dad was a big mood.” My mom will probably text me a nice message reminding me to think about him, or call if she has the time. I’ll think about walking to the Home Depot near me, and see if I can take advantage of the holiday’s corresponding sale to purchase a power drill.
I know I’m not alone in this quiet registration of Father’s Day. By now, I’ve accumulated at least a dozen friends with dead fathers of their own. I’ll also observe an inverse phenomenon: The sincere request, expressed on social media and in real life, that people not so publicly celebrate Father’s Day (or Mother’s Day before it), out of respect for people without living and present parents. The request is usually made politely and nervously, like someone attempting to inform their waiter a dish is off without trying to be a jerk about it. Occasionally, it’s more irritable and condescending, saying that it’s really unfair for you to publicly express feelings for your parent on a day dedicated to them, and you should seriously try to be more conscientious when thinking about what other people are going through.
I know those feelings well. In the immediate months after my father died, I remember sitting in the dining hall with some dorm mates, somehow enduring as one of them talked about how he didn’t want to go on a camping trip with his dad that weekend, but he just had to, because, you know, family, ugh. My internal monologue was something like: Are you kidding me, you little motherfucker? Still, I stayed silent because I didn’t want to be a naysayer. The first Father’s Day after my father died, I got several “so what are you doing this weekend?” inquiries, and subsequently launched into an early incarnation of my self-conscious little spiel. Again, I insisted it wasn’t that serious.
Internally, I may have been a monument made of shattered glass and ripped paintings, backdropped by a blazing inferno and scored to the scatting breakdown in Korn’s “Freak on a Leash,” but I didn’t express any of this angst because I didn’t want to stunt anyone’s day by reminding them that I was going through it. The impulse was theoretically noble — what better show of respect for someone than to deny them the spectacle of your personal conflagration, I guess? — but, obviously, limited in its ability to do anything good for me.
There was a grain of insight in this conscious repression, though. Parallel to these thoughts was the abiding knowledge that what I was experiencing was absolutely normal. It was abnormal in the sense that I was young, and nobody in my world knew what I was going through, but just as the experience of having a parent is near-universal, so is the experience of losing one. All around the world, people were losing their fathers; I was just the latest member of a shitty club. And if I wanted to muck about in my grief, I had to remember that I was not more special because of this, even if people treated me delicately in lieu of knowing what to say. The road toward feeling better went through me, and nobody else — not in the sense that nobody could help me (many people did), but that I would have to relearn how to engage with the world instead of expecting it to conform to my needs.
And that did happen, as the years went on. I repeated the fact of my father’s non-existence again and again, until, like a river wearing down a rock into sediment, my feelings were no longer roadblocked inside my head. Talking about it allowed me to talk about it. Working through grief isn’t exactly like adopting a new exercise regimen — you cannot optimize the healing process so that you blast through it in six months and emerge with a rock-hard emotional core. Even today, it sits somewhere in me, readily accessible whenever I wander off toward thinking about getting older or, I don’t know, Bob Dylan bootlegs (like all dads, mine loved Dylan). But it’s one part, no longer the whole.
I know how long it takes. I know no two dead parents are alike; I know many people have deeply bundled feelings of loss, anger, and sadness about the loss of one or both that time hasn’t yet cured. I know that people are sometimes alluding to merely absent parents, parents with whom they have a complicated, or nonexistent, relationship. But sometimes what I say to myself, uncharitably, when people complain about having to observe Father’s Day play out over various channels, is: Can’t you get a grip? Can’t you sort through your grief, instead of making demands of others?
But how unfair it is to be reminded that other people seem to be doing fine, even if it’s not the whole truth. One of social media’s defining characteristics is how it nudges the user toward expressing the most easily reducible version of an idea, rather than the more nuanced, less catchy form that often lies deeper in the mind. Most of the time this just means discovering that half the people you know have surprisingly angry feelings about negronis, but it also means something like a Father’s Day declaration can only be one sliver of how anyone feels about their parent. How could anyone even begin to sum all of that up on the one day a year when it’s demanded?
It feels banal to say this out loud, but modern life pushes us to keep using these platforms without ever thinking about how they distort what we’re thinking, and alter our fundamental connection to each other. It becomes easy to disdain people for how they choose to announce themselves in public, because it’s not the way we’d do it — to confuse the consumption of what one broadcasts for the totality of their personhood. Perhaps you have had the embarrassing experience of having a perfectly warm real-life interaction with someone you’ve regarded as a pure idiot, because of the way they seem online; I certainly have.
My father was building his own computer towers when the internet was still a curiosity exclusively used by weird nerds. I sometimes wonder how he would’ve considered the present moment, in which everyone is always partially logged on, and a passing familiarity with technology has become necessary to move through the world. He didn’t get into computers out of some evangelizing belief about how the world would eventually look and how we’d all interact with each other, but for more prosaic reasons: It was an exciting new addition to how we were already living, something to be studied as it became increasingly stitched into our routines. I have a million thoughts like this, about how he would’ve seen something now. It’s all too much to express out loud, and it’s not that interesting to most people who follow me on Instagram. It’s much easier to simply post a photo that meets the minimal demand of the occasion. I think he would’ve understood that, and he would’ve hoped that other people did, too.