Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day

After graduating from college, I returned home for a few months until I could figure out the next step. Around the time I moved back in, a pair of cardinals built their nest in a bush in our backyard. Soon there was a pair of speckled eggs. Before long they hatched, and over the next couple weeks the babies went from hatchlings to fledglings. On Father's Day the two of them ventured from the nest for the first time, hopping around in the yard as their parents kept a watchful eye and did whatever it is birds might do to help their young. Dad and I stayed at a distance and watched as they flapped and flailed around on the ground, slowly showing signs of figuring out how to use their wings. In the middle of the afternoon a squirrel killed one of them. The mother and father moved closer to their surviving chick, the better to prevent a similar fate from befalling it. Dad and I got closer too, and a couple hours later we celebrated in the fading daylight when that little bird took proper flight.

In November of 2005 my dad came to Los Angeles, where I'd been living with my sister for a few months following the dissolution of my relationship with my college girlfriend. The plan was to stay in town for a couple days, then take a week or so road-tripping back to Chicago together, going to the Grand Canyon and other destinations along the way. When Jennifer and I picked him up at the airport though, it was immediately clear that something was wrong. My sister was also in the process of moving. We were staying at her new condo, but a few things were still at her apartment, and I said I wanted to go back there and do one last check for my things. Truthfully, I knew nothing of mine was still there, but I had to get away because it felt like everything was caving in. We went to a hospital later that day. I was standing next to my dad when a doctor told him he had a tumor the size of a meatloaf on his brain.

By the summer of 2007 he'd already outlived the prognosis he was given at the hospital in Los Angeles, and had accomplished a lot more than anyone expected, continuing to go into work as much as possible, tending the flower beds at a park near his home, and keeping track of his and my stepmom's records while she began the even more tragic drift into early-onset Alzheimer's. That said, it was clear his time was running out. One day a week I babysat the young son of a friend of mine. Luca was not quite two years old the afternoon I brought him to my dad and stepmom's condo to escape from the blistering July heat. When we went in my dad was napping on the couch in the living room, but he woke up when I saw down in a nearby chair with Luca on my lap. Exhausted from chemo, my dad never got up, and he spoke very little, but he watched us. I knew right then that moment was as close as I would ever get to introducing a child of my own to my dad. I'm sure he knew it too.

It is somewhat foreign to consider your parents as someone's children. Of course even as a young child I understood that my grandparents were my mom and dad's parents, but that was sort of a back of the brain awareness. Primarily they were Grandmas and Grandpas, there to provide me with places to celebrate holidays and spend weeks in the summer, to sometimes let me get away with things my parents wouldn't. (It was years later before I could think of my parents or grandparents as actual people in their own right, with lives, interests, and concerns beyond just me.) By the time my dad was my age he was divorced, with a daughter away at college and a 9-year-old son who lived with him half the week and slept in a tent. In a lot of ways he was far more grown up at 37 than I am, but I realize now he almost certainly wasn't as grown up as I imagined him to be. I'm sure that at least occasionally he felt like a confused kid, the way I sometimes do now.

Imogen was born a little more than three months ago, and so today is my first Father's Day as a dad. And it is my tenth Father's Day since losing my dad. The gulf between those two facts is all-encompassing. Imogen's entry into this world has been the greatest joy of my life; my father's exit from it remains the greatest sorrow. Rare is the day there isn't something I wish I could ask him, tell him, show him. He is my phantom limb, the one I wake up in the night and reach for.

I wonder if for all her life, Imogen will wake in the dark and reach for me.


  1. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful, heartfelt piece. We just welcomed a little one into the world as well, so your words hit home for me.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. And congratulations!

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