“The face should be no larger than a quarter,” said the written request from my daughter’s second grade teacher. It is the middle of June at seven o’clock in the morning. I am riffling through old family photos for a picture of my husband to be used for a Father’s Day activity at school. She won’t be able to give it to him because he died suddenly almost six years ago—she was not yet two— but she has chosen to make the card for him nonetheless. There is a grace in her decision.
On Father’s Day, my daughter and I, along with my mother, will take my own 75-year-old father out to an Italian restaurant for dinner. Early that morning, my daughter and I will visit the cemetery, where she will leave flowers for her father, a man she does not remember, but knows and re-grieves with every new developmental stage. “You can pick the flowers,” I say, such a small consolation. I am 40-years-old; my father is still alive. I do not know what it is to suffer her particular loss and yet, I am her designated guide.
Earlier in the month, the now familiar Father’s Day email had arrived from the teacher at her homogenous, suburban school. “I have an option to do the same activity for grandpa if that works,” her teacher wrote, “or she can still make it for dad if she would like. Think about it.” I talk to my daughter. She would like to make it for her father. “Are you sure,” I ask? I give her a few other options. She does not waiver.
When he died, I struggled to communicate his death to my then 21-month-old. He had been touring Europe as a rock cellist with the singer Regina Spektor when he drowned in Lake Geneva on his day off, a narrative that never becomes less surreal, even with the passage of time. He had been traveling for a year for weeks at a time, and my daughter was accustomed to seeing him leave and come home with a big silver suitcase. This time, the suitcase came home without him. As soon as she spotted it in the apartment, she joyfully said his name. No, he is not home. I read book after book on how children grieve and explained it to her as literally as I could, as the experts suggest: his body broke. She tells me now she thought he had simply disappeared.
But my most loathsome realization then was that she would forget him, the man she called Appa – the Korean word for daddy. He was the man who changed her diaper every day and made her favorite nursery rhymes into songs, which he played on the piano or cello while she gleefully danced, the man whose unshaven chin she rubbed with her pudgy fingers as they cuddled in bed on Saturday mornings. How can love be forgotten? It seemed perverse to me —childhood’s amnesia — not only was her father gone, but her memories of him would also go.
I am a writer, so I started to write. I asked the words to stand in for memory and forgotten love. I called it, “wordkeeping.” I wrote daily, often feverishly, every memory I could think of for over three years—both for her and myself. I collected words from friends and coworkers who knew him, hundreds of letters that I had bound into a book five years later. I went through every piece of writing I had from him and collected everything he’d ever said about her and put those in an album too, surprised at the weight of meaning many of them now possessed. “I hope she grows up beautifully and without any darkness looming over her. I love her so much,” he wrote in an email about her night terrors a few months before his death. And just two days before, “I want her to feel beauty and good things about this world.”
In the most challenging and bittersweet writing prompt of my life, I tried to make him alive again—a round character rather than the flat two-dimensional one of framed photographs he was quickly becoming. My words, this scratching on paper that somehow does often transcend time and space, helped me to grieve, and one day if she chooses to read them, they may help her also. But I cannot speak him into being.
We moved. She reached the age where she had been alive longer without him than with him. I stopped writing.
It is storytelling, not my careful archiving of words, that gives him presence in her life. I weave his stories into her psyche and her narrative daily, the way your spouse’s childhood memories become interwoven into your own. “This is the first song he wrote when he was a little boy about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” and I sing it for her. She sings it too.
“When Appa was a little boy, he used to climb up to the kitchen cabinet and sneak spoonfuls of sugar,” I tell her.
“Can I do that?” she wants to know.
“No,” I say.
“Your dad didn’t like sesame seeds on his hamburgers either,” I say, as she eerily picks them off her bun.
“Tell me the story,” she asked at just three years old, “What happened to him?” She was not ready then. But now, whenever she asks, I tell her the story of the day her father and I met at the gates of Columbia University 17 years ago. I tell her how he wept when he first heard her heartbeat on the ultrasound, and how he worried about her eating all the icing on the cupcake at her first birthday party.
“Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color,” wrote poet W.S. Merwin in his short poem, “Separation.” I clung to these words because they described my loss so well in those early days and months. Love, like loss, doesn’t reside in memory. It doesn’t reside in words or even in story, though those come a bit closer. I know because I’ve watched a little girl grieve and love a man she has no real memory of. Her story, and mine, will forever be stitched with his absence, but also with his presence. She is growing up beautifully, as he wished. There is no darkness looming over her. In the face of loss, I once made love too small and pitiful—the one being acted upon—forgotten. Love’s true residence is more mysterious than memory—its perseverance wide and long.
The photo I find for her Father’s Day project contains the three of us. He is holding her and we are standing in front of Bethesda fountain in Central Park. I don’t know what they will do with the photo, or what her emotions will be as she navigates the project on her own. I will not be there to fill in the gaps when she sits in a classroom of twenty-two other children with living fathers. I hold a quarter over his face to make sure it honors the teacher’s request. He disappears for a moment. Then I place it in an envelope in her school folder.
The next week, I hold my breath as she tells me they used the photos to make their dads into superheroes with much bigger bodies. One girl, she says incredulously, couldn’t think of anything to draw in the background. “It was supposed to be something your dad likes,” she says. “What did you draw?” I ask with feigned nonchalance. “Oh, lots of things. I drew a cello, a piano, Korean fried chicken, mango flavored Italian ice, a bottle of Coke…” I exhale, and my whole body relaxes as though for the first time in six years. The stories of his life surpass the story of his death.