When you’ve had a loved one taken from you, when you’ve lost someone way too soon, there are certain nuances that you start to pick up on.
You begin talking in the past tense, “My dad was a teacher,” “My sister had the best reading suggestions,” those subtle hints you drop, hoping people will pick up on them and not ask.
You master the art of the sorrowful nod. When people first find out and they give you their deepest regrets, you tilt your head downward, eyes on the ground, lips pursed.
You can’t give too much away, because you’ve already had too much taken.
You become best friends with the phrase “It’s OK, it’s not your fault.” You get to a point where just saying those words will make you feel numb.
You memorize dates. Her birthday, the day he died, the first time you met, they all become engrained in your memory, and you find yourself dreading them each year.
And then the sucker punches come. If you’ve lost a parent you know the agony that Mother’s Day or Father’s Day can bring. Do you go to church and smile along with the service celebrating our earthly and heavenly fathers and mothers? Do you stay in bed, lamenting on what you lost? Or do you ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist? Try to just get by.
My dad died eight years ago. It was 12 days before my 14th birthday, and my friend and I were getting ready to go swimming when my mom’s phone rang, my sister spoke the words, and I was suddenly all-too aware of how incredibly weak my knees were. Eight years ago, I lost the man who had shielded me from so much pain, the man who had made me smile at way too many dad jokes. The man who was supposed to walk me down the aisle.
The stages of grief came and went (and still do), and the counselor my mom sent me to never got a word out of me. The pages of my diary had never been so full, and my mouth had never stayed closed for so long. Now, I’m mostly OK. If I’ll ever be fully OK is something I still don’t know, but I do know this: This year, on my eighth Father’s Day without my dad, I will celebrate.
I will celebrate the amazing dad I had. The 13, almost 14, years we had together, during which I came to appreciate country music and good books and being outside.
I’ll look at old pictures and smile and cry and write.
I’ll celebrate the man who raised me and my sisters, and was strong and imperfect and perfect all at the same time. I will remember that I’m luckier than so many others. I had a great dad, for 13 years. I have an amazing mom. I have people that love me, so I’ll celebrate.
For so many years, I didn’t know what to do on that third Sunday of June. The weather was always annoyingly perfect, it seemed. Everyone happy. Church services were followed by grilling out on the barbecue and jumps into the pool or trips on the boat. Facebook almost killed me with the smiles and sugary-sweet captions. What I wouldn’t do to spend one day with my dad, cherishing every moment, constantly enveloping myself into his strong arms. These bitches probably spent an hour with their dads today, I would think. Get the perfect picture to upload and then be done, huh? I was angry and hollow and jealous. My bitter heart made me cold and hard towards my friends with a dad, and I would gaze so longingly at their pictures, silently pleading that they treasure their fathers.
And I know they do. Of course I do. But on this one day it feels like the universe is rubbing my fatherlessness in my face. That everyone is happy and living their lives and playing games or seeing movies or eating with their dads while I float through the day, wary and tired and praying for it to just end.
But I can’t do that anymore. It’s exhausting and draining and I can see the eggshells I’ve placed around me that my friends and family take such care to tread through. So much of the pain comes from the many “what if’s?” I ask. What if he didn’t die and he saw me graduate high school and college and I could tweet about his dad jokes and Snapchat him singing Johnny Cash? The hope that maybe this is all just a bad dream or a hoax or he’s actually a government spy kills me and ruins this day.
Because this day, Father’s Day, isn’t about feeling sad. It’s about appreciating all our father figures. All our grandfathers and brother-in-laws and uncles and teachers that have been a positive male influence in our lives.
I won’t pity myself anymore. I can’t.
Instead, I’ll celebrate. Because there are 364 other days in the year for me to feel sad. Because he wouldn’t want me to wallow. Because every year that I push Father’s Day away and try to avoid it, the memory of him gets smaller and smaller. And even though remembering hurts, and my entire body will become seized by the heartbreak, looking back brings him closer. So, I’ll celebrate.