I lost my father to cancer nine years ago today.
I know it was today because of what the records say and what people have told me. I was studying in Ireland at the time, and my memory combined with the time difference leaves a surreal impression in my mind. I have to remind myself every year. I became too embarrassed to go to my mom or my sister, so I surreptitiously check my family tree on Ancestry.com to confirm the date. It is intensely frustrating that one of the most important moments of my life remains fuzzy instead of crystal clear like I think it should be.
There are days when I don’t think about my dad. Sometimes I challenge myself to bring up as vibrant a mental recreation as I can. It’s not easy. The sound of his voice is elusive: unable to replicate it myself, it always skates away just as I think I recall it. I can mostly picture his face, though it shows up differently (dark hair, grey hair, no hair) on any given day. I can still reel off plenty of facts: companies he worked for, sports he played, foods he loved. I can see him polishing his combat boots and mowing the lawn. Though for the latter, I prefer the version from my childhood, without the little cigar hanging from his lips.
When I do consider my dad, I think all of the usual things. Some less fair than others: How dared you value smoking more than us? Advised by doctors, he quit to protect me when I was born prematurely. But somewhere along the way, it didn’t stick. I still remember the moment I found out he’d resumed the habit. I was at the public library, sometime in my early high school years. I’d driven myself and was still in the parking lot when I saw him come out of the building. I didn’t know he’d walked over from home. I watched him light up, hiding behind the car in shock. I didn’t emerge until he was down the street.
I can’t believe I never confronted him about his smoking, I wrote in my diary on March 1 the year that he died. My justification at the time was that I figured he would brush me off. Probably true, but of course now I wish I’d risked it.
A day will come, sooner than I’d like, when the time I’ve spent without my father is longer than the time we shared. Even then, the time we shared was frequently separate. As a corporate pilot and Army reservist, he was often away from home. We had a fine relationship, though we shared too many volatile traits to be as close as he was with my sister. I was closer to my mother and remain close to her as I get older. She’s been there as I graduated from college, moved to Boston, earned my Master’s degree, got married, and had a son. It is strange to realize that my father missed all of that. I have such a sweet little family now, and I wish like hell he’d had the chance to get to know them. And me, for that matter! He never knew me as an adult.
That works both ways, unfortunately. I never got to find out if we would be friends. I never got to laugh as my father tried to sternly interrogate my future husband. M missed out on that. And he doesn’t know what parts of me come from my dad. He doesn’t see that we share the same brow and the same temper. It will probably be years before my son understands that I, too, had a father. Little Bear knows his paternal grandparents and three of four paternal great-grandparents. On my side, he has my mom. Life isn’t equal, I know, nor is this unrealistic. I am older than my husband, my parents are/were older than his, and so on. It isn’t surprising that there has been more loss at a closer level in my family than his. That just doesn’t make it any easier, though.
I’ve always been blasé about the fact that my family is scattered. Aside from a paternal home base in Iowa and a maternal in the general St. Louis area, most of my relatives live apart. I have kin in California and New York, Illinois and Oklahoma, Michigan and New Jersey, and plenty of places besides. For a modestly-sized group, we have gotten around. As a result, we see each other infrequently. I’ve spent much more time with my in-laws than my relatives in recent years. I love that Little Bear has so much family close by. But boy, do I miss my own. Video chatting and digital photos just don’t make up the difference. Sometimes you want to be face to face.
We take at least one photograph of our son every day. That was a conscious decision, even if we don’t eventually do a clever online album or photo book using those snaps. I usually go beyond the minimum, trying to capture his funny expressions and increasing coordination. Be it thanks to my training as an archivist or my history with my father, I want as many recorded memories as possible.
I’m going about it the wrong way, though. If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that M and I should be taking photographs of ourselves. We should be recording our voices and our smiles and the songs we sing. We should be taking pictures of every relative and friend we see. I desperately want our tiny son to be aware of his family, even just by sight, because someday we will lose each other. I have no power over life and death, but I can make damn sure he knows such love existed.
Life is short, but legacies can go on and on if you help them along. Memories fade so easily. Sometimes we need reminding. Someday, preferably many years from now, my son will be able to point to a photograph (or hologram, or whatever) and say to his great-grandchildren, “This is my grandfather. I never met him, but I know I would have loved him. My mother told me so.”