It's part of the American mythology: Dad as hero. He's bigger, stronger and smarter than anyone else, and you can always count on him to ride to the rescue. At least that's the way it's supposed to be.
Sociologists could have a field day sorting out the gender stereotypes and role biases inherent in that scenario. And I know more than a few therapists who would be happy to say it isn't always so.
But with Father's Day approaching, I'd like to say that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and in all temperaments. As a social worker and elder care specialist, I've seen more than my share of heroic dads struggling just to make things right for the people they love.
As a child, my own father always seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to our safety and welfare. When I was 6, I fell off my bike and broke my arm. Dad felt that something was wrong. He found me several blocks from the house and took me to the hospital. He took care of me and my brother and sister when we were sick. He loved soothing our aches and sniffles with his never-the-same-twice homemade soup, made by throwing just about any leftovers into the pot.
Although my father is an educated man with a PhD in psychology, he always had a child-like sense of fun and mischievousness. He loved amusement park rides, especially go carts and bumper cars. Once he even got kicked off the go cart track for bumping into his kids!
Through his instincts and exploits, my father taught me how to care for people, how to take chances and how to enjoy every minute on this earth.
Dad is 86 now and he's had dementia for more than 10 years. He's been living in a nursing home for the past five years. During that time, he has continued to teach me about life. Dad's ability to express love and contentment, despite his limitations, is a testament to his connection to family. Certainly, it's a tribute to my mother, whose daily and engaging visits have been life sustaining. But I know that somewhere inside, he still has that sixth sense about my well-being and happiness. He shows it through his sense of humor and the mischievous twinkle in his eye. On a given day, he may not remember my name, but he knows we're connected.
My father also displays an impressive level of equanimity and contentment about life, despite his dementia. Although I don't presume that it's for my benefit, I must say his attitude gives me a sense of peace. As much as possible under the circumstances, I feel good about where we all are these days.
So many of my friends have lost parents or they're struggling with how best to care for mothers and fathers who have become frail and dependent. Father's Day can be a challenge for anyone who has faced such losses.
That said, Father's Day also can be an opportunity to honor our fathers and to communicate the heroic roles our fathers have played in our lives, past and present. My father can no longer ride in on a white horse -- or even a white sedan -- to rescue me. But even with dementia, he can understand a simple gesture of affection, he sees that I make the time to visit him and he appreciates the straightforward and heartfelt words: "I love you." To me, that makes him a superhero.