My father would have been 70 years old today.
It’s so hard to write that. They say the first year is the most difficult, that every big event–that first Thanksgiving, that first Father’s Day, that first birthday—brings the pain back in a huge cold wave. I never thought he wouldn’t be here this May. I felt so strongly that he would go back into remission and we’d buy a few more years, that he’d be around to take the boys to their first Red Sox game and Johanna to her first performance of the Nutcracker.
And he’s not. And while part of me knows that at least he’s no longer suffering, I’m selfish enough to want him back with me. He was my touchstone, after all, and over the past few weeks, as I’ve grappled with some issues close to my heart, I feel that I need him more than ever. I need his quiet strength, his reassurance, his stoicism.
I still dream about him. Some nights he’s sitting on the leather ottoman chair in the family room, my three children tumbling around him. Teddy is showing him how he can spell his name on the I pad and Jo Jo is leaning on his arm, twirling her hands and singing, while Geoffrey bobs up and down on his lap like a two year old Jack in the Box. My father looks at me, beaming, and I know he is relishing the moment, soaking in the kinetic color palette of my children; the way Jo Jo’s pink glasses magnify her wide almond shaped hazel eyes, the light reflecting off of the white gold hair of my youngest son.
And some nights my dreams take the shape of just me and the kids, sitting in music class or sailing tricycles up and down our cul de sac. After a while I notice my father, standing silently in the door way or in the shadow of one of the trees on our front lawn, motionless but watching us all intensely.
He never speaks in these dreams. Ever. But I know he’s there and even though I can’t hear his voice or feel the weight of his arms around me I feel as safe and connected as I did when I was a very little girl, when he would walk into our house after a day of surgery and my sister and I would race down the stairs in our nightgowns and pink animal slippers, hurling ourselves at him and giggling.
But it still doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone, and that I miss him. Terribly. There are still times when one of the kids does something—Teddy asks something incredibly precocious, or Jo Jo achieves some milestone, or Geoffrey does something so devilish yet so cute it’s impossible not to laugh—when I want to call him, to tell him, only to remember he’s no longer here.
The day of my father’s funeral, I got a call from the office of Jo Jo’s ENT doctor. She was supposed to get ear tubes the following week, and her usual ENT surgeon wouldn’t be operating that day. But his new associate could do it. Sure, sure, I said, trying to get them off the phone, and then when I hung up I wondered if a brand new spanking young associate had any experience with the small delicate ear canals of kids with Down Syndrome. I need to ask Daddy, I thought, and then of course reality hit: but I can’t.
I started to cry. My aunt Carey, who’s also a physician, walked in. “What’s wrong?” she asked. I explained the situation. “I’d usually ask Daddy,” I said sheepishly.
She just looked at me. “Well, what do you think you should do?” she queried.
“I think I should call the office back and explain that since Jo Jo has Down Syndrome I’m really not comfortable with anyone else putting in her tubes,” I said instantly.
She nodded. “I think your instinct is right,” she said. “And I don’t think you needed your Dad to tell you that.”
She’s right, of course. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s still that little girl in me, the one in her frilly lace nightie and pink slippers who wants to dive into her Daddy’s lap and huddle against him, basking in his security. When my father died, he left a huge void in all of our lives. But I’m finding my way. It’s slow and hesitant, and sometimes gruelingly painful, but I’m doing it.
At my father’s memorial, I told the story of how when I was six years old, I was terrified of riding a bike. My father used to take me out on the street and coax me to ride it, telling me he was holding onto the back of the seat and would not let go. We did this together, blissfully, for many weeks, until one day I saw my shadow and noticed he was no longer holding on.
I stopped so hard I fell over and started to cry. “Daddy, what are you doing?” I bawled. “You promised.”
He cradled me in his arms and kissed my head. “I haven’t been holding on for a long time now,” he told me, laughing. “But this was the first time you noticed.”
The way I see it, my father has let go of my metaphorical bike and moved on. He shows up in dreams, sometimes, to let me know he’s keeping an eye on things, but for the most part, I’m left, alone, wobbling somewhat but realizing I can do this on my own.
Thank you, daddy. Thank you for loving me, and my children. Thank you for teaching me how to ride, and for letting go when you did. Thank you for letting me think you were there for so long, when you were actually letting me ride on your own.
You are not gone. You live on in your grandchildren. I see your purity of heart, your innate sense of goodness, in Jo Jo. I see your astute mind, your problem solving, your inquisitiveness in Teddy. I see your stubbornness, your determination, your ultimate perseverance, in Geoffrey.
Happy birthday Daddy.