I was very lucky in my childhood (and now as an adult) to have a really, super-awesome mother. But, I was also unfortunate enough to have a relatively absent father – both by choice when he was alive, and by default after he died.
I can’t really say that he was a bad father or a good father, since so much time has passed and the memories I have of him can probably be counted on two hands. And half of which I’m not even sure are real or just some figment of my imagination that has developed so there’s something there to remember. It has been so long, I can’t remember the sound of his voice or his smell or even what he looked like as a real person and not a photograph. But somehow I do remember the coarse roughness of his beard, and the stinging it left when he’d give me a “raspberry” (i.e. rub his beard on my cheek roughly but gently, leaving a red mark and slight sting.) It was a game that would make me giggle (except for when it hurt), and I guess that’s enough to tell me that there was a lot of love there.
He died when I was 8 years old. And anyone that has ever experienced a significant loss like that will tell you, you never really heal from it. It is something that you carry for your whole life. Over time, you just become less raw. Throughout the last 22 years, I’ve found myself going in and out of the stages of grief. Anger seems to rear it’s ugly head the most, either at him or just at life in general. Depression comes up too. But I usually find a way to cycle back through Acceptance, that is, until something triggers the Anger again.
It’s mostly the big life events; my first date, my graduations, my first broken heart, my wedding, getting pregnant, becoming a mom. You selfish asshole for not being here. Poor me for not having you here. I’ll get through it without you, I always do.
When I learned I was pregnant, not only was I sad that my dad was missing it and curious if he would be proud, but I was also just plain nervous about who I’d be as a parent, not coming from a traditional two-parent household. I was lucky to be exposed to my best friend’s functional, two-parent family as a kid (which my mom once credited significantly to me turning out semi-normal. I think it was a combination of that, being around my married-50-years grandparents, and my mom being part superwoman.) And I was also lucky to have joined a family, through marriage, with two loving parents who exemplify the epitome of what it means to be a ‘parent’.
But still, I feared how Tristan and I would parent (or more so, how I would parent in partnership with Tristan) because it wasn’t inherent in me how to exist as a mom and as a dad. It was something I only ever saw from the outside, and envied – I never fully understood it. How do you know how to parent without a parent yourself? Whether it’s your mother or father or both that are missing, there remains this gaping hole into which you just want to scream “How the fuck am I supposed to do this without you?!” And while you hope for a response, the only one you ever get is your own echo. You’re on your own.
It wasn’t until I actually started doing the parenting thing that I realized, maybe my fear and concern for the type of parent I would be was premature and unwarranted. There were a lot of things that my father taught me. I just wasn’t ready to learn them until I was in the thick of it. And there are a lot of things he continues to teach me, even though he might not physically be here to do it himself. To name a few:
Cherish every moment. A lot of people seem to have strong feelings about the advice from strangers to “Enjoy every moment. This time goes by so fast.” And I guess I understand how it might be annoying to some… But there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t stop in my tracks, take a deep breath of Charlie’s scent, smile into his handsome eyes and say, “you are the best thing I ever did.” When you’ve lost someone close before, you don’t mind if someone else to tells you how fast time goes – because you know what they mean, maybe even more than they do themselves. You know that nothing stays the way it is, that nothing in life is a guarantee. My father didn’t get the opportunity to cherish the moments. But because of him, I cherish every moment, every day. (Even the tough ones.)
Never take for your mother for granted. I knew growing up that my mom was pretty great. But now that I am a mom myself, I genuinely don’t understand how she did it on her own. Being a mom is so.damn.hard. And every time my husband takes Charlie outside to play so I can get a nap, every time he wakes up to change the diaper, every time he takes over when I’m about to lose it, I realize my mom didn’t have anyone to do that for her. Ever. And handling teenagers by herself? Seriously. My father wasn’t there, and because of that I will never take my mom for granted. She is my best friend. And I am determined to never look back and say that I wish we had a better relationship or that things were different, because I don’t want to have regrets about both parents. Because of my father, I have an insane amount of love and gratitude for my mom and everything she does.
Be thankful to your husband. I’m not only lucky that I’ve got one that sticks around, but that is an awesome father. I can’t be certain that, had he not died, I could say the same about my own. Who my father was – with his temper, anger, addictive personality, laziness – makes me grateful that my husband is the exact opposite. When I get frustrated at him for not taking out the trash or leaving the dirty diaper on top of the Genie instead of taking the 14 extra seconds to put it in the Genie, it’s my father (or sometimes my mother, in reference to my father) who reminds me how lucky I am to have him doing those things at all.
Forgive people for their mistakes. Even yourself. My father wasn’t perfect. In fact, he was far, far, far, far from it. He was so far from perfect that, to him, perfect was a miniscule particle of dust off in the distance. And he was short tempered, unhealthy and not the best role model. But that wasn’t all he was. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone has flaws. Including yourself. If we spend so much time focusing on the bad things about people, we’ll miss all of the good things too. (Like how he was fun and musical and athletic.) My father taught me that you can’t live your life resenting people for mistakes they make – I’ve spent too much of my life resenting him for not only who he was, but also the kind of life he left for us in his wake. Learn to forgive others, and more importantly to forgive yourself.
No matter what, it could always get worse. So buy life insurance.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from my father is to not die at age 36. Of course, I know that is mostly out of my hands. But when things get bad, or when things seem like they just can’t get any worse, it’s important to remember that they can. Being exposed to death too early has made it a fixture in my life. I tend to live in constant concern and fear of something bad. In the strangest moment, the thought will hit me – Oh my god, what if I die? What if Tristan dies? What if Charlie dies? It’s hard to keep the anxiety at bay, even when things are good. But the take-away is that it’s important to focus on what we have in life and how we are blessed. Be grateful and try to find happiness – even in the tough moments – because it can almost always get worse. (And because they can get worse, make sure you have life insurance.)
Father’s Day has always made me reflect on my past and on my dad, for obvious reasons. In the past, it was usually a sad holiday for me and one that mostly just made me feel left out and excluded. But now that I’m a parent and I get to celebrate my husband on this day, it’s starting to become a happier one. I’m glad that my new experiences as a mom have given me this deeper appreciation for my father, and have taught me that he is still there to give me advice and guidance if I just let him. Sure it’s unconventional, sure it’s hard to lose a parent so young, and sure it’s a little sad to become a parent without one of your own around to see it. But everything doesn’t have to be lost along with him. I hope my kids never have to know the pain that I had to, at least not so young. But my children will know who their grandfather was. And they will know how much he loves them. And his daughter knows the same.