Life Notes: A Lasting Loss
Learning to live as a fatherless child

More than four decades after my father died suddenly, it
still hurts to talk about him, and to realize that as “healed” as I
presumably am, I will miss that small, bespectacled man to the end of my own days.

I had a difficult father. I wanted a standard-issue one. And I know that mingled with the sense of profound loss is guilt: I didn’t appreciate my dad when he was around. I was too young to have life figured out. And I never, ever had the chance to say goodbye – or thank you. No second chances there.

My dad was definitely not the “Father Knows Best” sort –
all-gentle provider and protective knight. A Philadelphia lawyer, he had unorthodox ideas that embarrassed me and principles that made him morally impeccable but wildly impractical. And I admit it: his penchant for terrible, corny puns made me wince.

But my father had lofty goals for me. And now that I’m a parent, I think I understand. When I was in high school, my dad made me memorize several soliloquies from Shakespeare. Back then, I was furious I had to waste my time reciting archaic lines – and not even for school.

Only now do I understand that this wise man wanted his daughter to appreciate language, to respect it and even love it. To this day, I can spout forth those lines from “Macbeth” even though I can’t remember where I left my car keys or the name of the movie I saw last week.

The passion for language took. I turned out to be a writer. But he was gone, before I could tell him how much those sessions about words and language ultimately mattered and altered the course of my life.

I understand now that I barely knew my father during our years together on this earth. How many of us ever really think of our parents as people – separate and distinct human beings, not just
authority figures with absurd rules and ideas?

How many of us take the time to ask those searching questions that might reveal who these people were before they were mom and dad? If I had it to do over again – and Lord, how I wish I did –
I would have pushed to learn the history of this man, a lonely, only
child of immigrant parents who must have had his own struggles, but seldom spoke of them.

Although my dad lived to meet our three children – he lavished his brand of love upon them – he never got to share the milestones.

My father wasn’t there, cheering from the sidelines, when Jill
mastered her first two-wheeler bike. He wasn’t there when Amy proudly graduated from his own alma mater. And when Nancy walked down the aisle as a radiant bride, there was no maternal grandfather standing under the wedding canopy with her. How I’ve missed my dad through those crowded, wonderful, chaotic years.

How I’ve yearned for him to reap the sweet, sweet rewards of great-grandfatherhood alongside my late mother, his widow, who had so many more years to relish this astonishing gift. And how I would give just about anything to finish the unfinished business between a complicated father and a daughter too naïve to make her peace with him.

Decades after his death, my father remains forever larger than life, sometimes appearing in my dreams to remind me that he lives in my unconscious and probably always will. It’s taken me years, but I finally have an old black-and-white photograph of my father on my dresser. I can even look at it and smile now.

But for as long as I live, my father’s birthday will always be a
melancholy day for me. Father’s Day is still difficult. And as long as I have breath, I will struggle with the might-have-beens that never were.

The best I can do is remind my own daughters, so they will tell their own children, that once, a small man with deep dimples and bright blue eyes taught their mother about life and fairness and justice. That man was far from perfect. But he was my father, and
their grandfather. And that makes him a part of them always.

So no, I’m not the model of acceptance. I’m not a poster child for grieving and moving on. Late in my own life, I’m still a fatherless child. And it never stops hurting.

June 2013
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