Despite the fact that it was four years ago, I remember so clearly spinning the rack, looking for a Father’s Day card for my husband. One caught my eye and as soon as I started to reach for it, thinking, “oh, here is a perfect one for my dad,” tears rushed out because he isn’t here anymore. I’m fatherless. The unexpected flood of grief surprised me so I left the store without ANY Father’s Day cards.
I feel fortunate that I had a loving, present father for over forty years, and that is why being fatherless on Father’s Day is so unbelievably difficult. I have spent more years of my life buying the To My Dad cards than the To My Husband cards so in the midst of celebrating my husband, and watching my son delight in their relationship, the hole in my heart feels pretty wide open and exposed this time of year. And my hands grasp for things other than cards.
In August 1999 my father had a stoke and was confined to a wheelchair with left side paralysis. Sixteen months later he had a massive heart attack and wasn’t expected to survive the night. We teased that he was like a cat with nine lives because he went on to live eleven more years in spite of his body’s slow decline. His death, though not a surprise, still came too soon.
Throughout those last years I lost bits and pieces of my dad. He was a writer and a storyteller, and he was the one I called when I wanted to know the answer to something. Once, I came upon a sign and I wondered what a word meant. His cheery voice gave me his standard “HELLOOOOO,” at the other end of the phone, but when I posed my question he became quiet. He wasn’t sure of the meaning of the word. He apologized, said he was tired, had a big day at therapy. I assured him it was no trouble, I could look it up, and it was just a good excuse to call.
Each year I sent or hand-delivered a Father’s Day card. I watched him struggle to open it one handed and gently read the words to him when he missed the left side of the card due to his left neglect. Little by little, I grieved the parts of my dad that were lost. In spite of this, the grief over his actual death was still all-encompassing. I became fatherless.
I feel his loss most profoundly on certain occasions; his birthday, my parents’ anniversary, the day he died, and Father’s Day. The third Sunday in June is dedicated to men who have been father figures; uncles, grandfathers, family friends, big brothers. Father figures can take many different forms, but since I had such a wonderful father I miss him tremendously this time of year. It is the day when being fatherless feels achingly all-consuming.
Looking back, I wish I would have thought to just buy the card anyway. I wish I would have written to him exactly all that I was feeling that year. I still celebrate my dad in the stories of him I share with my son, in the ways I see his influence in my parenting, the bits of his personality I see in my son. But instead of a card, I pour a cup of coffee into my “dad mug,” the mug I gave him many years ago as a Father’s Day gift. Passed from daughter to father to daughter again. I grasp it and hold it tight, warming myself with memories and love, and I allow myself to focus on my father, rather than what is left, being fatherless.