On this Father’s Day, my sister Maria posts a photo of her and our Dad having a milkshake. She says it is their last photo together. Dad has a sparkle in his eye as he looks at the camera and sips chocolate milk through a straw. The love I have for him swells my heart and makes it hurt. My brother Peter posts a photo of Dad in his WWII Navy cap walking the old neighborhood. Dad’s blue eyes smile. Sadness drags me down then a jolt of joy picks me up. I picture walks and talks Dad and I have had over the years. When I was six, he would hold my hand and I would try to keep up with his long-legged stride. I felt pride. I felt seen. I felt safe. I felt loved. His Irish wit made me laugh, his strict rules kept me in line, his playfulness lifted my spirit.
I am his favorite, but everyone thinks that, each of his 12 kids. How can we each think that? How did he create that distortion of reality? He used to pull one of us kids aside and whisper, “Wanna go with me for a ride in the truck?” He looked at you like you were the only one he would choose. It was thrilling to keep the secret and hop up into his red truck without the other kids knowing. I might help him deliver groceries to the hospital from our grocery store, or just accompany him to the bank. He would introduce me to the teller. “This is my daughter. She is 9 years old and likes to draw.” Then he would stop at the soda shop and buy a milkshake for us to share at the counter. I felt special. Turns out he created these one-on-one escapades with each of his children and later his grandkids. They always ended with a milkshake.
From the writer Rachel Cargle (her Dad died when she was 11):
“I was my dad’s favorite person and no one can convince me otherwise. During the time I had him with me I never felt anything less than the center of the universe which, to this day, my mom likes to remind me that I am not. For the first 7 years of my life I thought my name was Beautiful, that was all he ever called me. I remember laughing harder than ever, feeling safer than ever, being more comfortable than ever when I was with my dad…I think – I know, rather – that even though I missed his presence over all these years I never ever felt without his love. I was filled to the brim with his affirmations of who I was and how I mattered and that stuck to my bones as they grew.”
When my sister gave birth to her first child, they rushed the baby away to clear her nose and mouth, so she could breathe freely. My sister strains to see, as I stay by her bedside. The nurses seem to be tugging and poking and treating the newborn roughly. I cringe. The baby’s father crosses the room, places his head between all the fast moving gloved hands, looks his new daughter in the eye and says, “Hi Alana.” She blinks slowly and her squirming arms and hands settle down, as she takes in his love.
A colleague of mine is a therapist specializing in working with men who have histories of domestic violence. One of his interventions is to say to the men who are fathers, “I am sure you want to be the best father you can be.” He told me that every single father he works with responds to that in a positive way. Their hearts soften when they think of their children. Being a good father can often motivate a man to change his poor behavior, though he may still struggle.
I feel a grief renewed as I miss my father, who died 5 years ago. But what is grief? Grief means your heart hurts from a love you felt. That love is a gift that stays with you, even if – like Rachel Cargle, your father died when you were a child or, like me, you had him nearby most of your life. My Dad’s love for me continues to be a source of strength and I feel gratitude through my tears of missing him today.