It’s Father’s Day. Advertisers are offering golf packages, dress shirts or steak dinners. Hallmark is hustling cards. Sons of dads will pick up the phone to say hello and I love you and I miss you. Daughters are holding the hands of their fathers, thanking them. And in many ways it is just another day passed on the calendar, a box checked, a blip in time – a hot summer day with the sun shining bright. But in December, my dad died. So, it’s different this year, left remembering his story instead of making new stories with him.
On that day my dad died, we got our first big snow of the season. I stood later looking at the calendar, seeing that the first day of winter was still days away, and calling BS on it – because the cold, dark season came early. Like every winter, we knew it was coming. But that just doesn’t make it any easier. Winter is always surprising and chilling and relentless. I remember a moment more than several years ago, sitting at my parents’ kitchen counter next to him while my dad talked candidly about having COPD, telling me that it would surely shorten his life. At my discontented sadness, his response was: “You didn’t think I’d be around forever, did you?” It would be foolish to think so, foolish to expect this fatherless Father’s Day would never come.
I have at times been foolish enough to envision a life in which my dad could teach my son all of the things he had taught me, like how to hold a pencil and direct it on paper into a vanishing point. I could see us gathered – the three of us – around our stamp book, gluing them in together – watching Lucas with sticky fingers and happy eyes, side-by-side with his special, artistic, gentle grandpa. Mike would teach Lucas the mechanics of a baseball game – of a pitch. While my dad would teach him the mechanics of an engine, how getting dirty could be a beautiful art. He was supposed to be a part of the tribe that would build a man out of a little boy.
But COPD gave way to Cancer, that scary, heartless thief. The first bout was matter of fact; Dad would have surgery followed by treatment. But the surgery stole a lung and for the next six years my dad would walk around with his one heart and one lung: lighter yet heavier. He decreasingly used his talents – his hands – a loss almost bigger than the actual loss of his breathe. As he slowed down the world sped up, and three years later the Cancer came back – as it does. It was a black veil over his lung, his body, and us. Shortly after, he walked me down the aisle, a trip I’d always feared I would make without him. And for our daddy-daughter dance he chose the song “My Girl” because he always said I was his favorite girl. Three more years flipped on the calendar and there was something on a scan, and my dad in the hospital. They couldn’t fix it this time, but in the notebook I kept of Lucas’ first year, I had noted on that day: “He said everything would be ok.” It’s something dads tell their daughers.
In the midst of it all, our Lucas was born. We raised an infant and my dad got to be a grandpa. This story can’t be written without him: Lucas’ first months on earth so intertwined with the last of my dad’s. Our son was our sun, our single light shining in a dark room, proof that there is still beauty in death, in the contrast of a new life reflected against the end of one. But our son will never know his grandpa. It is a loss so unfair – a boy with one less superhero. I want it so badly for him: the handmade cards each birthday – signed “grandfather”, a crude cutout construction paper “2” when he turns two, a note stuck in his car when he turns 16, probably with a few bucks for gas. “Thanks for visiting.” or “Let’s do lunch some time.” Though he can’t know his grandpa, his grandpa knew him. My dad got to hold his grandson, to watch him learn to roll over and crawl and laugh. He was always trying to push him into the next thing, helping him stand and encouraging him to walk and “say mama…say mama…” It was like he wanted Lucas to grow up faster, to condense time into all that was left for my dad.
He was on hospice in the end, with nurses to check up on him and my mom – his wife of 40+ years – his everyday nurse. And we were there, too: his daughter, his son, his son-in-law, his grandson, and his granddog – all making up the little army that marched slowly on with him. We were there when and how we could be, having been granted the time to say what we needed to say, to repeat goodbyes. I have quiet moments next to him, not knowing what to say. I have the last conversations, the chances to tell him I am sorry and to accept his apologies. I have the lasting mental images of my husband and brother carrying dad’s weight when he could no longer carry his own, of my mom upholding the vows that noone wants to face – in sickness and health and until death do us part – all with patient love. I’m proud of us, doing the best we could, walking along with grief already next to us. And I am proud of my dad. How impossibly hard it must have been to let us help him, to feel his body fail, to face that and the end.
My dad had this old clock that had to be wound each week with a little key. Every Sunday we wound it – to keep time going. But he left us. And I was left with trying to put together the words to describe him, who he was as I saw him, and what he meant to me and how this world might be without him. I said much of what I have written here at his funeral service, six months ago. I described him as a personality full of contradictions, somehow always everything he was at the same time he wasn’t. That he could be downright mean, yet exceedingly thoughtful, or quick to anger yet mindful and patient. He could be hard to live with but he was so easy to love. He was witty, funny and quirky – he’d make you laugh at unexpected moments with unexpected thoughts. He didn’t think like other people and saw the world in a way no one else could. He was creative and talented, using his gifts to leave behind pieces of him wherever he went, while never bragging or acting superior. He was kind and loving, always with a sincere smile. He was generous and giving. He was a McGuyver who could fix anything, or build anything, and never said “No, I can’t do that.” He was so much more than I can manage to capture, and it was impossible then and it is impossible still now, to contain him in the few words I could and can muster: this unique and talented man who also happened to be my dad. It feels like so much more than a loss to me and us, but to all those parts of the world around him he could have still touched. His was an average life made important and meaningful in his meticulous projects. I envy that he has left behind so much of himself and can only hope to one day be thought of as he was – as creative and artistic, hard around the edges but soft on the inside.
My dad was all these things, and he was an alcoholic. Before he died I had the chance to sit down and interview him, to record his words so that Lucas could someday hear him talk and know him even a little bit. I asked him how he would want to be remembered, and after a few thoughts he suggested: “remember the good and the bad, all of it.” But, the bad usually and conveniently gets left out. When someone dies you don’t want to recount the bad stuff, the imperfections and flaws. Yet it feels dishonest to omit it. The truth is, he drank through my formative years, during the time when I needed him most, when my self-worth and confidence were shaping. He was mean. He was scary, and home was scary – an uncomfortable truth. My alcoholic dad was a son of an alcoholic, his future self also formed out of dysfunction and fear. It’s part of his story; it created mine. Somewhere in there he helped raise us; while mom worked he stayed home with us, making us cheese and cracker lunches and helping assemble the Hot Wheel track. And then when I was 16 he got sober for good, making the year he died the same year he got his 20 year chip. So, it is a success story: the bad turned to good, a weakness turned to strength. I had twenty good years with my dad and that has to be enough because it is all I was given. Perhaps the before and after – the contrast between his two lives – makes the time we had that much sweeter to me. He wasn’t perfect, but he was ours – always mine as much as I was his.
When I was a kid my dad would inexplicably take an old dictionary and use it to look up unusual occupations and write the word for it on a card, sitting on the kitchen counter for me to find and look up – like Ornathologist or Wainwright. Now I’m left with that dictionary, a leaf flattened within it that he placed under L for leaf so it could be found later. I am left with this and other things: his coin collection, a basket he built, his letters and cards, money he had handed me that I can’t bring myself to spend because he will never give me more. And I have the Cramer ears, my dad’s ears. These goofy, big Dumbo things that stick out too far. I have always hated them and hid them. But, I remember one day looking into the mirror and thinking that some day they would be all I would have left of my dad. I have these things, but not him. How I miss his hugs, his twinkly blue eyes, his presence. How I miss his misspelled words, his goofy emails signed OVER. How I wish I could have some time back, to know him more and to let him know me more. How I hate this grief, that I have to have it. How long and unfair this remainder of my life will be lived without him.
My dad was a man of few words, and not big on advice. There are only a few things he repeated to me over and over, one of which was to “ask God for help.” He also would direct me towards the “24 Hours a Day” book used in AA – or as we called it the One-Day-At-A-Time book – to read the daily devotional for inspiration and guidance. On the day he died, part of the message in it was this: Most of us have had to live through the dark part of our lives, the time of failure, the nighttime of our lives, when we were full of struggle and care, worry and remorse, when we felt deeply the tragedy of life. And this, my dad’s and our story is just that: a nighttime of our lives, full of struggle and care. And though true it seems too sad and too personal to share here, sandwiched among blog posts about our wedding and our newborn, our home renovations and our vacations. No one wants to think about dying; I should have written about dad farting in public and blaming it on barking spiders, or of how he would buy Ryan and me a toy every Christmas well into our 30s because “everyone should get a toy on Christmas.” But for now there is still a fresh wound there, a gaping hole where my dad used to be. It is always sad for those of us left behind, trying to know and accept life differently, trying to find new framework for Father’s Day and every other holiday. As someone just said to me, holidays are hard without those who make them special.
My dad’s sweet story came to a close, but ours keeps going. So, we will find new meaning in Father’s Day. I will watch Mike, my husband, be a dad – teach Lucas things unique to him and them, make memories that no one else could. He will find his own ways to embarrass his son, to love him, to discipline him. He will screw up, make the wrong choices, doing it sometimes perfectly and sometimes imperfectly. He will be a dad that Lucas can love as fiercely as I’ve loved my dad. And I get to walk beside him in this new chapter of our lives. As that little book went on to say: The night of the past is gone, the day is ours. Happy Father’s Day to my dad who has moved on. I’ll tell your story when I can and how I can, let you live in my memories, in my own actions and talents. And oh how it goes without saying that I will love and miss you always. And a happy Father’s Day to my husband who will be with me for the rest of our time here. I look forward to parenting Lucas with you. You will be a new model of fatherhood, a dad for me to watch and admire, and to love.