The first time my husband held our daughter in his arms, he cried. It was a luminous experience. But I was startled by a question that somehow crept in to the moment: Is this how my dad felt the first time he held me?
When I was 3 ½ I went to sleep in our quiet Philadelphia suburb with a loving dad down the hall. The next morning, I woke up fatherless. He had died of a during the night, leaving behind my mother, my sisters and me.
We never talked about my father when I was growing up. My mother removed him from our lives like a surgeon removes a suspicious mass. No pictures. No loving stories around the dinner table. Questions about him were unceremoniously cut off: "He's gone. We have to move on." I've often wondered if the loss was too painful for her to talk about.
More likely, she meant exactly what she said. She was, in all things, a very practical woman. But during my childhood, I imagined that my father wasn't really gone at all. He lived in the elm tree outside my window. At night, he sat in its branches, watching me sleep. I would tell him about a book I'd read, a math grade I'd received, a spelling contest I'd won. He always listened with pride.
From my earliest years, I knew how it felt to be an outsider. At a time when most families included two parents, I endured countless small ceremonies—the father-daughter dance, assignments to make Father's Day cards—that sharpened my isolation. I remember school bus rides, my forehead pressed against the window, looking into houses where daughters waited for dads who always came home. I felt like a traveler in a foreign land, the land of dads: I was welcomed but never a native.
Sometimes, my outsider status came like a slap in the face. My mother hit a deer with her car and arrived to pick me up at school late and shaken to the edge of hysteria. I thought, This kind of thing doesn't happen when dads are driving—and if it does, they don't fall apart. At a neighborhood dinner party, my friend's father became a bit too attentive to my very attractive mother. His wife noticed. Listening to their angry, hushed voices from the kitchen, I felt embarrassed and vulnerable. That wouldn't have happened if my dad had been at the table.
Men came into and out of our life. Some stayed for a time. Some didn't. Most meant little more to me than the man who showed up every Thursday to cut the grass. My mother even married one of them. He was kind but in a way that seemed negotiated, as if the package deal had included me and my sisters along with the wife and the house. He didn't try to be more than he was. One morning, he, too, was gone. My mother never said why, and we never asked. That's how things worked in our family.
I followed the script of so many outsiders: When you are out of step with the world, make the world get in step with you. I won academic prizes and tennis matches and wore just-right clothes. I got into a good college and went on to earn a Ph.D. I married a wonderful man; we have a grown son, a daughter in college and two yellow Labrador retrievers. Dr. Freud wouldn't have to keep the lights on late to see why I became a psychologist with a lifelong interest in families: Because I hadn't experienced one, I would research and study them, as my way of discovering, owning and mastering this thing called family.
And yet the loss of my father circles my life like a prowler looking for an open door. The intruder gets in while I watch the bond between my husband and our daughter grow and deepen, like that first time he held her, or the day the training wheels came off and I became a spectator to his able coaching. I've watched her eagerness from a young age to talk business with him. I've laughed at the way they indulge their love of Kanye West, singing together in the car. But the prowler keeps rattling the latches. Why not me? Why didn't I have this? What would my life have been like if I had? Am I simply curious, or is it darker than that? Am I envious—or worse—resentful?
I have an advanced degree in psychology and have spent my career studying families, damn it! I can dissect my feelings clinically. What I haven't been able to do is make them go away. I've never talked to my husband and kids about these thoughts. Maybe I should, but I'm afraid that their reactions would fall somewhere between "Where did these feelings come from?" (I hide these thoughts well) and "Get over yourself."
I'm learning that the best way to handle the feelings is to invite them in. And when I do, I realize that the trick isn't to fight my thoughts; it's to put them in perspective. I know my dad is preserved in the amber of remembrance—and invention. He never let me down or had too much to drink. He remains loving, consistent, strong, handsome, neatly pressed and freshly shaved. He'll be that way in my mind forever.
My relationship with my father is a fantasy. But because of the life I've helped build for her, my daughter does know the warm embrace of an amazing dad. So I've trained myself to wade deeply into the pain of my loss, splashing around in it until I almost understand it. As I've learned to deal with what a lost father takes away, I've also learned to celebrate the person it has made me and the wonderful family that person has helped create.
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