What do you do on Father's Day without your dad?
If this sounds like the start of a sad and depressing journey through loss and grief - it's not. And if it sounds like I miss a close relationship with my father - it's not that kind of post either. And it's not the kind of post where I resent my mother for getting remarried - I'm thrilled she has found someone who makes her happy and even now is enjoying a fantastic Alaskan honeymoon.
No, this is a love story with a happy ending. I promise.
Let me be clear: my dad and I didn't have a close relationship. In fact, our relationship was strained. As a child, I didn't want to be like him when I grew up and I didn't admire or idolize him. He wasn't my hero. And as I grew older, I resented his rage, I resented his indifference - and as an adult I became angry with him for refusing to accept me.
Yet despite the anger, resentment and lack of admiration, a little part of me still loved him - and still does. And that same small part of me misses him - although not as often as one might think. If that seems heartless or callous, it's not meant to be. I tried to let go of my anger and resentment a long time ago (as much as it is possible to fully let go of any powerful emotion) and truthfully, I have few strong positive memories by which to remember my dad.
Rather, I think what I miss most about Dad is the lost opportunity to improve our relationship. I miss knowing that I could call him and awkwardly talk - even if just about safe topics like the weather and his latest biking adventures. Because there was always the chance Dad and I would share just a moment of connection. That I would make him laugh or that he would express something he felt towards me. It would happen when I wasn't expecting it, in the most awkward ways. Like on Christmas, outside in the cold, while staring at my car.
I had driven down from Cleveland to spend a day celebrating Christmas. Mom had made a meal, we opened gifts, and Mom and Dad tried to act like they were happy - they weren't. And I tried not to let anyone see that I wanted to leave just to escape the uncomfortable silences, forced laughter, and staged photos with unhappy smiles.
It was late evening when I finally left. The temperature had dropped, snow had started to fall, and I wanted to get back to Cleveland before the roads got too bad. I hugged Mom and Dad goodbye and headed for the door. "I'll walk you out," my dad had said.
We both headed out into the cold, I fired up the car to start all the defrosters, and my dad watched, shivering a little without his coat. I wasn't sure what he wanted - maybe to ask me something, maybe to chastise me about my boyfriend.
But instead he commented about my car - something about how the backlit dash looked like a spaceship. And I laughed and agreed that it kind of did look that way in the dark. We stood behind the car, not looking at each other, blowing out clouds of vapor into the darkness.
"It's cold out tonight," he had finally said. I had nodded and pointed out that he wasn't wearing a coat. I felt awkward, standing there in my coat, a little guilty because I just wanted to leave and escape the awkwardness.
"Well," Dad had said and reached around to grip my shoulders with his arm. "Drive safe."
"I will," I had promised. And I remember thinking I could drive safer if I beat the snow storm that was building around us.
Dad squeezed my shoulders once, then dropped his arm away to shove his hand into the pocket of his jeans. I started to move towards the car door. "Love you, Mark," he had said after me.
I could hear his voice was choked-up and I quickly turned to give him an awkward hug. "I love you too, Dad," I told him - and he hugged me back. There was a teary smile on his face as I pulled away and I gestured him back towards the house. "You better get back inside," I told him.
He nodded, gesturing me to my car. I smiled at him, trying to relieve the awkwardness between us, then half turned to start back towards my car. I wanted to leave so I could be alone with my thoughts. So I could just replay the moment over and over. "Have a good night, Dad," I called as I climbed into the car.
Dad was wiping his nose and waving as I pulled away. I felt even more guilty leaving him standing there, but stopping would have been even more awkward. I was safe in my car - and there was no way Dad could take back those words if I left right then.
That was the last time my dad would tell me he loved me. But even if I had known that then, I'm not sure I would have felt any less awkward about that moment. Or that I wouldn't have tried to run away just as I did that night. Dad never expressed much emotional connection for any of us kids and after years of living with his depression, anger and self-introversion, there wasn't much left but brief awkward moments.
But I don't regret that awkward moment in the snow: Dad confirmed what the deepest part of me always doubted and I told him what I hated admitting.
I wish I could tell you I had an epiphany that Christmas night and made a better relationship with Dad, but that's not what happened. My grandfather died a few weeks later and more drama ensued between my parents - more frustration and anger, more avoidance on my part. Then Dad got sick and none of us suspected the severity until he only had a few weeks left - then there were no more awkward moments for he and I to face.
But the real epiphany was love. Despite our strained relationship and many conflicts, Dad had told me the one thing I needed to hear. Sure, there was awkwardness. And snow. And more awkwardness. But he said he loved me - and in that moment, I knew I loved him.
That's enough for me. And that's how this love story ends. Me, my dad, a cold snowy night, and love.
Happy Belated Fathers Day to dads everywhere...
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