Miscellaneous, Parenting

The Daddy Box

Today is set aside to honor and to remember fathers. I tell my boys each year that on this day I don’t want them to make themselves scarce, or to wait on me hand and foot – I want to spend the day with them and do something we all want to do, and to enjoy being a dad. Where we go and what we do is up to them (within reason). This year they’ve opted for one of two choices – canoeing, which is something we do once or twice a summer; or if the weather doesn’t allow for outdoor fun going to see a movie we all want to see.

I hold no particular memories of Father’s Day with my dad. Certainly I gave him cards and the occasional gift and a phone call in the years when we were speaking – but none of these occupy any particular real estate in my mind and recollection. Dad and I had a very strained and even non-existent relationship for many years. Even after we reconciled, ten years prior to his death, things weren’t always smooth sailing. Dad even, while upset with me for not being able to visit him for more than a month, told me a story one day that ended with him saying he likely was not my biological father, and couldn’t possibly be. I look too much like him and other men in the family to truly believe that, and yet for some time I wondered if it might indeed be true. I never pursued it, but for a while I wondered. Ultimately, though, I resolved in my mind and heart that he was the only father I’d ever known – that I was a grown man, with a family of my own, and didn’t need to go in search of my identity. I knew who I was, and that was what was most important.

My father passed away two years ago. I think of him every day and miss him very much. When he died the assisted living facility that he called home for the last eight years of his life boxed up his belongings for my brother and myself. There wasn’t much, and like my recollections of Father’s Day in relation to my dad, his belongings didn’t occupy much real estate. The clothing Dad left behind was either donated or discarded – his few other meager items divided between myself and my brother, and a hat for each of my boys that Dad wanted them to have one day.

I keep a small decorative box in a drawer of my dresser of those things I chose to retain. It measures perhaps 10 inches by 10 inches. It is nowhere near full. A few photographs, his comb, a pen he kept in his pocket daily, a small notepad he wrote in, his wallet, and his watch. After 83 years of life Dad left very little behind. None of it is valuable to anyone but myself, and yet it is the only tangible link I have to my dad other than to look in a mirror. I don’t have a shirt I can put on to imagine it being a hug from dad now that he’s gone…I don’t have anything he ever made for me to hold in my hands, imagining his touch as he crafted the item. I have, for the most part, only memories – and not all of them good ones.

Several years ago now I realized a long-held dream and became a father myself. A wonderful little boy came along who still amazes me to this day with his kindness and compassion and ability to make me smile and laugh. Another boy, who I cared for as an infant and then had to love from afar but never considered any lesser than my adopted son is in my heart returned to my daily life where he remains to this day, filling me with awe at his strength, resiliency, and courage. Both boys call me ‘Daddy’. I didn’t ‘make’ either one of them, in the biological sense. Their looks, their physical traits, their DNA come from other places and other people. That does nothing to detract from my love of them and commitment to them. I didn’t give them life, I just get to share it with them. I do give them what I can – security, stability, caring, compassion, the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years, and a deeply rooted desire to be a better parent to them than I feel my dad was able to be to me in my childhood. What they give to me outweighs anything I ever do for them.

Earlier this year I had to give them difficult news – that being that my husband and I had decided to divorce. They took it with some difficulty, for their own reasons. People say, and have said, ‘children bounce back’ and ‘children are resilient’ – and yet I still spent many sleepless hours thinking about the fact that I didn’t ever want them to HAVE to bounce back from that if it were at all preventable. In the end, though, it became a necessity, for the good of everyone involved. The boys have questioned the ‘why’ and offered their own ‘what if’ in the process, and I’ve told them both they did nothing to cause it, and therefore there is nothing they can do, nor should they try, to fix it.

A few days ago one of the boys gave me a ‘gift’. It wasn’t wrapped, nor did it have a fancy bow on it. He didn’t have to shop or order it online. It had no price tag attached to it, and yet the value of it, to me, like the few tangible remembrances I have of my dad, is immeasurable. It’s a single sheet of paper, with pictures and words on both sides. The pictures on the front side of the paper, one labeled good and the other bad depict my soon to be ex and I on one side (the good) with the words ‘will you marry me’ and on the other side (the ‘bad’) saying ‘We’re getting a divorce’ with two boys flanking us. In the lower right corner of the paper are the words ‘next page’, instructing me to turn it over, where I found, just above two small drawn faces topped by curly hair, the following words:

‘Meaning we were sad and still are but whatever makes you happy makes us happy and what makes you sad makes me sad.’

In a different spot in my bedroom I have another decorative box, larger than the one housing the last effects of my father. It’s rectangular in shape, perhaps 15 inches by 30 inches, hinged like a suitcase with a clasp to hold it shut. Inside the box are construction paper Father’s Day cards, small rocks, art work, school projects, questionnaires they filled out about what I look like and what my likes and dislikes are, letters to Santa Claus, a couple of shirts, and several other items that the kids either gave to me or represent a special occasion we shared or something we worked on together. I call it the ‘Daddy Box’. It, to me, holds something beyond the memories we have thus far made, for which there is no box large enough to hold them all. It holds things we created together, things that we both touched and held; the tangible evidence of a fraction of the love I have for both of them that they can perhaps one day hold in their own hands and reflect upon the day we made this or that, or the times I helped them button up that shirt, or the day we walked on the beach together and they picked up a small rock and presented it to me as if it were a diamond.

Today I’ve added an item, the sheet of paper described above, to the ‘Daddy Box’ in the hopes that my son will know, one day when I’m gone, how precious this was to me and how much comfort it gave to me to know that one of the things he has, whether it’s through any influence of mine upon him or not, is the ability to see beyond his own needs and wants – to hold the happiness of another up before him and offer compassion and understanding to them, despite his own feelings. It’s gestures like this that give me an inkling of the man he will hopefully become, that both of them will hopefully become, and the fathers they may one day be to children of their own.

I hope they both create a ‘Daddy Box’ of their own. I hope they one day experience even a small portion of the joy and happiness with and from their own children as I do with and from them. I hope that their ‘Daddy Box’, as well as I’m sure my own will, becomes two boxes, then three, and on and on.

But more than that, I hope theirs are filled with as much love as mine is for both of them.

Happy Father’s Day.

 

 

 

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Miscellaneous

What I Lost Last Week

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

On Monday, May 25th, 2015 my father passed away. He was 83 years of age.

Each day since then has been filled with tears and filled with sorrow. Each day that passes I’m strong when I need to be, and then not when I don’t. Some days I get bogged down with a task at hand, and the grief I feel shifts around to somewhere other than the forefront of my mind. But when the task ends, or when I sit down to allow myself to rest for a moment, or when the house is quiet and I’m the only one still up, or I awake in the middle of the night it comes crashing back over me. Grief is cruel that way. Cruel and unfair. It strikes when you least expect it, and then lingers to taunt you.

I must speak of my father in the past tense now. I can drive past a certain assisted living home in Maine, but I no longer will stop there. It’s not where he sleeps, it’s where he slept. I can look for grape nut ice cream in a list of available flavors. It’s not what he likes, it’s what he liked. I can mimic his words and tell his oft repeated stories, even in his voice. It’s not what he says, it’s what he said.

So many words seem infinite in their potential and their capacity. We can like many things. We can know many things. We can love many people. So many words in our language seem to encompass moments and hours and weeks and years. Live is one of those words. We live by breathing and eating and loving and feeling. We live in the miles that we travel and the disappointments that we face and rise above. We live in the moments that we create with others and for ourselves. We live in the knowledge we acquire and our relationships with others and the legacies we leave behind. We live from the moment we draw first breath to the moment we expel our last.

The word die is different. It is a present tense word that the use of only encompasses a brief moment in the span of eternity. It is the moment when we cease to breathe…we cease to feel…and we cease to live. There is before, which we participate in and leave our mark for later if we are lucky. There is also after, which is not ours to own. That belongs to those we leave behind to mourn us and honor us and miss us and remember us. But in the word die there is only the briefest flicker of time in the space between before and after. Our eyes, once open, close, and then before is done, and after has filled its place without us even noticing the transition.

At my father’s funeral, I spoke of him and of our relationship, and how it suffered over the years. Fortunately it ended in healing and in forgiveness some ten years ago. I am grateful for those ten years, and yet feel cheated out of the other 36 I might have had with him. For a period of time lasting more than a decade I cut my father out of my life and robbed myself in the process. I won’t take full responsibility for that separation, as we both had a hand in it. But for my part in what brought about our silence with one another for all those years I am sorry. For what I lost in those years, time with my father, I am filled with regret and told him so before he passed away. For what I have now lost with his death, I know there is no apology for, and no forgiveness to seek, and no substitute for.

When my father died last week, I lost many things. I lost more than eighty years of wisdom and experience. I lost answers to questions I never thought to ask. I lost arms that would wrap around me no matter what was wrong or what I had done and comfort me. I lost stories of my grandparents and their parents before them that he hadn’t gotten around to telling me. I lost laughs that we hadn’t yet shared, as well as tears that we might have cried together, safe and comforted in the presence of one another. I lost the hours of anticipation I’d feel knowing I was driving up to Maine to see him. I lost someone who cared about me enough to listen to what my favorite cookie was and hand me a bag full of them, lifted from the coffers of his assisted living home, to send me home with them and carry me through until our next visit. I lost someone who would pick up trinkets and toys found around the facility and send them home for my boys to put a smile on their faces. I lost insight into a time before I lived that no history book will ever offer me. I lost stories of myself that come from a time before my memories began to imprint themselves on my own mind.

I lost a friend. I couldn’t always say that he was my friend. Thankfully that changed before it was too late.

People say grief has five stages to it. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I believe I’ve skipped over the first three stages in an end run for the final two. I cannot deny that my father is gone. I cannot be angry for I know he was prepared for his death and that he had reached a place in his life when he no longer wished to fight a losing battle. I cannot bargain for his continued existence because I’ve already lost him. That leaves me with two stages. I won’t call what I feel depression. Many times people feel as though they have nothing to live for when someone passes, or they begin to think about their own mortality so strongly that it becomes a kind of paralysis to them for continuing to live. I have to go on. I have kids, and family, and friends and experiences to make with all of them. I have many things to teach the boys, memories to not only pass on to them but to make with them as well.

I think this stage is, for me, more aptly labeled sadness. Sad that I can’t listen to him telling me stories, no matter how many times he’d told them to me before. Sad that I can’t hug him anymore, or kiss him on the forehead when I’m leaving and feel him reach up and place his hand over my own that I lay on his shoulder. Sad that my boys won’t get to know him better, at least not directly, and will have to rely on my stories to teach them things about their grandfather. Sad that I have one less place to visit when I go to Maine. Sad that while I can still say ‘I love you, dad’, I can never again hear him reply, ‘I love you, too.’

I know that the stage after this is acceptance. I know that in time the hurt will change and the memories won’t bring so many tears, and I’ll be able to think about his passing and about going to his grave site without a feeling of panic sweeping over me. I’ll come across pictures of him and be able to look at them for more than a few seconds without feeling as though someone has knocked the wind out of me with repeated kicks to my stomach. I’ll take out the very few material things I have of his and hold them in my hand and imagine his hands upon them and perhaps feel that he’s really quite near, rather than feeling the incalculable void that seems before me now when I look at them. I’ll sift through memories of him and not feel like I just want to curl up in a ball and sob until I have no tears left. I know I’ll get there. It’s a journey I’ve taken many times before.

For now, I think I’ll just stick with sad for a while longer.

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