The year Ethan was in kindergarten, I lost both my parents to cancer. My father died on May 20, a week after Mother’s Day and exactly one week before he would have turned 84. The combination of Mother’s Day, my father’s birthday, and the anniversary of his death makes May a painful month for me. Then, when it’s over, there’s still Father’s Day to face.
I miss being somebody’s daughter. I miss the sense of safety that comes only from parental love. My dad was fiercely protective. I moved about my world secure in the belief that he “had my back.” Yet, in all honesty, it wasn’t always easy being his child.
The first few times my father held Ethan as a baby he grew tearful.
“Those eyes are staying blue,” he said when Ethan was three weeks old. “What a gorgeous guy. I can’t get over how good looking this kid is.”
I had to agree with him. Ethan really was a beautiful baby. Still, it stung when he added, “No one in my family was ever this good looking.”
Years before, when I’d first introduced him to Richard, he said Richard was too handsome for me. He went on to tell me the story of his ugly distant cousin who married a very attractive man, and how the marriage had ended in divorce. That time, I cried long and hard after he left, then cried again the next day in my therapist’s office.
“I’m pretty, aren’t I?”
“Very.” My therapist handed me a tissue so I could blow my runny nose.
“So why doesn’t my own father think so?”
She believed it had to do with my disability. “The damage is physical, so when your father appraises you, he doesn’t see a perfect-looking girl.”
It made sense, but still it bothered me.
“So, he focuses on how smart you are,” she went on to say. “There are worse things.”
It’s true that my father was proud of me, and he was clearly proud of Ethan now, too. Taking a breath, I did my best to shrug off his comment, but in the throes of what I now realize were postpartum blues, I felt too sensitive to let it go. With a bulging blob for a belly and hair that hadn’t been combed twice since I’d become a mother, I was sure I really did favor my father’s ugly distant cousin, at least for the moment. So when he persisted in fussing over Ethan’s good looks, I reacted by teasing him.
“I think he resembles you,” I said.
He straightened a little in his chair. “Really?”
“Sure.” Feeling only slightly guilty, I added, “You know how it is with babies and balding old men.”
Moments like those are painful to look back on after someone is gone. A few times, when Ethan has said something particularly cutting to me, I’ve caught myself warning him about such regrets. How will you feel if that’s the last thing you say to me? But making Ethan feel guilty doesn’t help either of us. Our children show us their worst selves because they need a safe place to let out those emotions. Doing so helps them face the harder, less forgiving parts of their lives. Absorbing our kids’ anger and bruised feelings is not the easiest aspect of parenting, but I was fortunate enough to learn that it’s not the hurtful words we hold onto in the end.
I spent the first Mother’s Day after my mom’s death beside my father’s hospital bed. I’d been visiting him regularly during the previous weeks, and each time I’d seen him he was less and less himself.
Shortly after I arrived that Sunday, he said to me, “I want you back.”
“Who?” I asked, thinking he must be confusing me with someone else, some lost love, maybe even my mother. But then he said my name.
“I’m right here,” I told him, taking his hand.
There was wonder in his eyes. A nurse came in to take his vitals. My father had a look of deep feeling on his face that could have easily been mistaken for pain.
“Talk to me Leonard,” the nurse said. “What’s the matter?”
He answered, “I love this girl so much.”
“What girl, Dad?” I asked.
Again he said Ona.
“Me? Your daughter?”
He nodded. “I should have noticed you sooner.”
That’s when I realized that the details of exactly how we were connected no longer mattered. In this last phase of life, context wasn’t necessary. Certainly any harsh words or hard moments between us over the years were forgotten — were, in fact, beside the point. All he knew was that he loved me. All that was left was love.
We looked each other in the eyes and nodded. Silently, we were making a pact. I would be here for him. I would be here to receive this great love.
His lunch arrived and I helped him eat. His hand shook as he lifted a Styrofoam cup of tea to his lips so I laid my hand on top of his to keep the hot liquid from spilling. His fingers felt dry and cool. Carefully, he took a drink and then kissed my hand, over and over, punctuating each sip with another kiss.
That was the last time he was able to speak to me. When I visited the next Sunday I knew I’d never see him alive again. He had that particular distant gaze I recognized from my mother that meant he was already leaving. Still, he lifted his hand to tell me he wanted it held. I did the talking. I thanked him for his solidity and generosity, told him I would miss him and was scared, but I also assured him that I’d be all right.
Early the next morning he died. A while after I got the call, I went for a walk. It occurred to me that with my parents gone, I had lost my one guaranteed source of unconditional love. But then the breeze tickled the back of my neck the way my father used to do and I knew it wasn’t true. Love like that doesn’t leave with the body. It’s the part that stays. When you’re walking alone on the saddest of days, it is what holds you upright, what gets you through.