Reminders of my father still arrive daily though he has been dead many years now.
Letters fill the mailbox from financial gurus predicting the next big market collapse and urging Dad to “Act now!” A local radio station he enjoyed while he was among the living drops him a note thanking him for his ongoing listenership, asking that he make his tax-deductible contribution before it is too late. Recently delivered is a letter inviting him to a night out on the town—an April in Paris Taste of Jazz party. The notice promises French music, French food, wine, cocktails and heavy hors d’oeuvres beginning at 6 p.m, RSVP requested.
The legions, like me, who’ve lost our fathers don’t need Father’s Day to bring us to mindfulness, but we’re grateful for the occasion all the same. For us, the day offers a chance to talk about our losses in a way that’s not possible the other 364 days of the year. Time tends to stop, Rip Van Winkle-style, when a loved one is lost, the bereaved falling into a timeless sleep while the living move busily about their chores.
It’s still hard for me to believe—my father—gone. More than half a decade after his passing I’m still practicing saying the word—gone—in part because I don’t fully believe it’s true. Still, the mail keeps coming for him, the stories of his kindness, nurture and cultivation still inspire and guide my life, and every little thing I do conjures his memory. Much of the time, when I feel his benevolent presence near and overwatching, he’s shaking his head in wonder at the follies of the living.
In the days after we buried Dad I struggled to know what to call myself. A widow, after all, is a familiar character in film and literature, but what is the word for a farmer’s son who has lost his business partner and ideological soulmate? Where are the fruitcakes and the desserts baked by concerned neighbors? Where are the handmade quilts and hands reaching out for us, where do we stew, mellowing in our grief?
It took me years of intense sadness and longing to realize labels don’t matter; my father taught me that, and so much else. “Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides,” Dad would say, cautioning me against the norming of love and loss. Did he somehow know I would spend the difficult months after his passing wallowing in self-pity? Did he understand the temptation I would feel to look around at my friends’ fathers—still active and vigorous in their fifties—and wonder why me?
Often I dread the needless conformities and shameless commercialism of our national holidays. The ad man would have us believe that the only fathers worth celebrating are those who are living. Because the living father is the only one you can buy for, the ad man forgets those fathers who live in memory, choosing instead to offer quaint caricature of the stereotypical cardboard cut-out guy who’s fully alive and picky about his ties.
Father’s Day, though, belongs to all fathers—past and present, living and dead—just as surely as it belongs to those of us left behind, missing them with our whole hearts. In its way, Father’s Day amounts to an annual R.S.V.P inviting us back into the world, calling us out into real and grateful communion with others who want to raise a toast to the fine, funny, fragile, full-hearted men who brought us life.
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