Growing up, Father's Day was a "mixed bag" for Vance Taylor.
When Taylor and a sibling were diagnosed with a debilitating disease at a young age, his father abandoned the family. In the years that followed, the annual June holiday represented a major gap in his life.
On the other hand, Father's Day allowed Taylor to celebrate his mother and a number of strong male role models in his life whose examples inspired him.
"Father's Day gave me a unique opportunity to think about what kind of a father I wanted to be when I had kids of my own," Taylor said. "In other words, I wanted to grow up to be the kind of dad I wished I'd had when I was a kid. In that sense, Father's Day helped me develop a more formalized appreciation of fatherhood."
Today, Taylor is a husband and father of two daughters. Growing up without a father has helped prepare him to more fully appreciate his opportunity as a father. In commemorating Father's Day, Taylor and his mother, Morena Merlos, discussed their experiences and shared insights related to the role of fatherhood.
Several decades ago, Merlos met a handsome man in San Francisco. They fell in love, got married and had three children. Theirs was a happy home.
"I thought our love and marriage would last forever," Merlos said.
Then daughter Kathy, age 9, and Vance, age 7, were diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes muscles to break down and weaken, often confining a person to life in a wheelchair. Their father couldn't handle it.
"He left us," Merlos said. "We saw him a few times during the next year and a half. Then we never saw him again."
For the next year, Merlos cried herself to sleep and awoke in tears. Caring for the children while working a full-time job was challenging, but her faith and love for the children, along with their reciprocated love, motivated her to keep going.
"It was physically and emotionally tiring," Merlos said. "I knew they depended on me for everything. I could not fail them. I knew God had given them to me for a reason and I truly felt honored to be chosen to be their mother. Their emotional strength and sweet personalities made it easier for me."
The family celebrated Father's Day for their grandfather and uncles, but the holiday was still a painful reminder. For a time, the children blamed themselves, although Merlos said their father was a grown man who made his own decision.
One year, Kathy was asked to speak in church about Father's Day. With tears flowing, she didn't think she could do it, but her mother suggested her remarks could be a chance to talk about the kind of father she wished she had. Kathy could also encourage children not to take their parents for granted.
"I told the children there are great fathers and that they could see that in some of the men from church who were like surrogate fathers to them," Merlos said. "I told them that it was too bad their own father was missing out in all the great things they were accomplishing and all the wonderful things they had to offer."
Taylor, his wife, Casey, and their daughters Isabelle, 12, and Sammy, 10, live in Rancho Cordova, a community outside of Sacramento.
His mother credits several "fatherly figures" for assisting Taylor with Boy Scout merit badges and teaching him how to become a father today. She also taught him the right vocabulary.
"The fact that Vance knew I always expected his best effort in everything, that excuses were not acceptable and the word 'can't' was not allowed at home, contributed to his developing a strong character and becoming such a great father," Merlos said.
For Vance, the challenges of being a husband and father are far outweighed by the blessings of parenthood. He has learned that being a good father requires love, sacrifice and work, not to mention unselfishness.
"It's not always easy to put your kids before yourself, but when you do it right (meaning with love), you experience a joy and an unparalleled happiness in meeting their needs and their wants that you wouldn't trade for anything," Vance said.
He encourages fathers to treasure, appreciate and find joy in fatherhood. Don't waste the opportunity to influence your children, he said.
"Not every one has what you have. You don't have to be able to run or walk to be a wonderful father. You can be a great father without having had a great dad. You can be great regardless of your bank account or your 401(k)," Vance said. "You have the power, and the choice, to be a hero to your children. Your love and influence will be felt by your children whether it comes to them from a football field, a dance studio or a wheelchair. Respect, not fear, most influences lives for good. Love them, serve them, teach them and they will be yours forever."
Merlos, who lives in Roseville, California, finally made peace with the hurt and resentment she felt for her first husband when she joined the LDS Church in 1990. She has remarried. Now she feels sorrow because her first husband will never experience the joy that comes with seeing their children succeed in life.
She agreed with her son's thoughts and offered a few observations of her own.
Merlos encouraged fathers to be aware of children in fatherless families and befriend them. These fatherless families should also surround themselves with good male role models and influences.
"By doing that, not only are you making someone’s emotional life better, but you are teaching and preparing your children to be great people and great fathers," Merlos said.
To fatherless children, Merlos says: "Just because you do not have a father at home does not mean that you are not a wonderful, special and great kid. You are treasured, loved and can achieve anything you set your mind to accomplish."
Merlos also hopes parents will be more grateful for children with energy to burn.
"I would tell people that when their children are driving them crazy because they are running around the house or they are jumping on the furniture or other wild things, remember how blessed you are that your children can do all those things," she said.
"Teach them manners and behavior, but if you put things into perspective you will have more patience and find ways to discipline them in a firm but loving way."