Spoilers: Through 3x19 for Community
Rating/Warnings: PG. Implied past character death.
Word Count: 1,490 (of 18,470)
Disclaimer/Notes: See Prologue for disclaimer and general notes. Thanks to Michael K. Williams—yes, that Michael K. Williams—who Tweeted the line attributed to his character.
"Watch out, dad, comin' through!"
Jeff stepped out of the way as his son came barreling past, presumably having been lured upstairs by the same happy shrieks that had drawn Jeff outside. He'd been standing in the doorway watching his daughters Debbie and Patty chase each other around the yard for several minutes. There had been nothing in particular to check on—which he had strongly suspected, being quite familiar with his youngest daughter's various shrieks—but he had needed a bit of time to calm the emotions that seeing his father's handwriting on the unopened envelope had stirred up.
He had long ago come to accept that he would never truly be free of his father, and in some ways he considered that a good thing. He was, for example, fairly certain that his experiences as a child made him a better husband and father. Asking himself, "What would William Winger do?" and then doing the opposite had never steered him wrong. And he did genuinely enjoy telling people that his dad was dead.
But the years of neglect and emotional abuse had taken their toll, and even after extensive psychoanalysis, he found himself reliving that pain from time to time, and years of cognitive behavior modification therapy had not fully cured him of the vanity, self-absorption, and the obsessive need for approval and admiration that he had come to realize he shared with his father.
Nevertheless, he liked to think he'd made a lot of progress, especially considering how far he'd had to come. That he was where he was right now was proof enough of that; the old him never could have committed to the hard work of maintaining a marriage, nor to putting the interests of his children ahead of his own.
More than anything else, that was what separated him from his father. William Winger had run away from being a dad, and Jeff had embraced it. He couldn't comprehend why his dad didn't love him the way Jeff loved his children, though he suspected it was a mental problem of some sort. It couldn't have anything to do with him specifically; for one thing, he felt strongly (and his mother agreed) that he had been an outstanding child, perfectly lovable in every way. And his mom had told him that his dad had begun to pull away even before Jeff was born.
Regardless, Jeff had come to pity his father as much as he hated him, and the hatred was more directed toward what he had done (or not done) than toward the man himself. To be unable to love your own child was almost tragic.
Jeff watched with a smile on his face as Daniel grabbed Patty from behind and started to tickle her, yelling, "Tickle monster!" over and over. Debbie came to her sister's rescue, and before long all three were on the ground climbing all over one another and laughing hysterically. That was when Patty noticed him standing in the doorway and called out, "Daddy, come over here!"
"No way, José. If I come over there, you're all going to dogpile me."
"No we won't!" Patty said, giggling. "I just want to show you something!"
"Fine," he said, opening the screen door, "but if you guys try any funny stuff, you're all in big trouble."
Fifteen minutes later, Jeff was lying flat on his back under five patio chair cushions, a ratty blanket, and three laughing children. Hearing the back door open, he craned his head backwards and saw Annie and Rosemary standing on the back steps. "Hey, time out, guys!" he said, sitting up and sending the kids tumbling off him, provoking even more laughter. "Who wants to meet one of my old teachers?"
Debbie, who had inherited her mother's love of all things educational, sprang up and practically ran over to introduce herself. Once Jeff had introduced the other two, he sent all three kids to pick up all the various items they'd dragged out of the shed to pile on top of him. "I take it you're on your way home?" he said to Rosemary.
"Yes, I'm afraid I have other errands I have to run this afternoon," she said. "I'm sorry my visit reminded you of unhappier times."
Jeff shrugged. "I was probably overdue for a reminder about what a crap dad I had. It keeps me from falling back on bad habits."
"Jeff, you were never as bad as him," Annie said.
"Yeah, I was. You only saw me at my worst that first night. After that, you and the rest of the group started changing me."
"We didn't change you," Annie countered. "You don't remember this, because it was after he kicked you out of class, but on the first day of Biology 101, Professor Kane told us, 'Nobody can change a person, but someone can be a person's reason to change.'"
"I wouldn't have remembered that regardless," Jeff said.
"Not that it's any of my business," Rosemary said, "but I agree with your wife, Jeff. If you shed your old habits and learned new ones, it's because you decided you wanted to. If 42 years in the classroom has taught me anything, it's that people learn what they want to learn."
"I guess," Jeff said. "And look, I'm glad to have that stuff back. I know just what I'm going to do with them."
By the end of the week, the drawing was framed and hanging in Jeff's home office on what Abed liked to call his nerd wall, near a piece of original John Romita Sr. Spider-Man art, a cel from the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends animated series, and a Die Hard poster autographed by Bruce Willis. At first, he had planned to frame the card as well, but thought better of it and set it aside to be dealt with at a later time.
That time came about three months later, on his son's birthday. That evening, after Patty had been put to bed and while Annie and Debbie were reading in the family room, the men of the family retreated to Jeff’s office together. "I’ve got one more thing I wanted to give you today," Jeff said, taking the card out of his desk drawer and handing it to Daniel.
"This looks really old."
"I wouldn't say really old," Jeff said, looking pained. "I made it when I was in third grade."
"You made this? Cool." He flipped the card open and did a double-take. "Um, why does it say 'Happy Father's Day'?"
"Because I made it for my father," Jeff said, "who sent it back to me unopened."
"Really? Jeez, what a dick."
"Yeah. You kids weren't too lucky when it came to grandparents."
"I liked Grandpa Pierce."
"He wasn't your real grandpa."
"So? I'm not your real father, but you gave me this card anyway."
"That's not why I gave it to you, goofball. Look, did I ever tell you how terrified I was when your mom told me she was pregnant with you?" Daniel shook his head. "I used to be a lot like my dad. Your mom and Pierce and your aunts and uncles—"
"It's a little weird that I'm not really related to most of my relatives," Daniel interjected.
"—they gave me a reason to want to be a better person, but I was really worried that I'd be just as bad a dad as mine had been. But when I saw you at the hospital for the first time—"
"Before or after you passed out?"
"After. I don't know why we let Abed show you that video," Jeff said with just the slightest asperity. "Anyway, when I came to and saw you cradled in your mom's arms, the fear just vanished. I couldn't remember ever being happier… and that's why I'm giving you that card. Because the day you were born was the day I learned I could be a happy father."
"Man, that's corny," Daniel said, though he had a big smile on his face. "So does that mean you like me best?"
"You're definitely my favorite son."
Daniel looked thoughtful. "Yeah, OK, I can work with that." He threw his arms around Jeff's midsection and hugged him tightly. "Thanks, Dad, it's really cool. I'm gonna go show mom and Debbie." He ran out of the room. Jeff followed at a more sedate pace, thoroughly satisfied with how the conversation had gone. He had to hand it to himself: despite his lack of a good role model, he'd gotten to be pretty good at this fatherhood stuff.
He was about halfway to the family room when he heard Daniel say tauntingly, "Hey Debbie, guess what? Dad just said I was definitely his favorite," followed quickly by Debbie's aggrieved, "What?!" and Annie's exasperated, "Jeff!"
Jeff groaned. He couldn't believe he'd handed Daniel an opening like that. Pretty good, he thought, but still plenty to learn.
Prologue | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Epilogue | Annotations