I was watching a father-daughter reunion on-screen when my eyes filled. Sure, I’ve always been a sap and the moment was an especially poignant one in a moving film, but when the tears wouldn’t stop, I knew I was missing my dad — and longing to feel his arms around me, to hear the soothing tenderness in his voice as he called me “darling” or “cocoa,” his pet name for me since I’d been a young girl.
With Father’s Day approaching, the moment offered an unexpected catharsis. After making it through a year of firsts without my dad, who died in October 2012, I wasn’t sure what to expect as the occasion neared, if I’d be swept up in a tide of grief or if my sadness would be a gentler ghost, fluttering its broken lament.
Today, I may awake with a heavy heart but what I will carry, too, is gratitude. For the night after I sobbed quietly on the couch, it was this that poured itself into my morning awareness: I may be fatherless, stripped in successive years of the man who helped give me life and another who taught me how to shape it, but that paternal energy of protectiveness and pride, love and appreciation is still with me.
So today, I give thanks for my uncles, including my dad’s older brother Earl, who despite being an eternal enigma to me, carries kindness in his eyes. Though my only true memory of avuncular benevolence is a distant one, a Sunday drive winding along the sea-salted north coast of St. Lucia, my fingers stained orange from the cheese balls he’d bought for my cousin Sarai and me, I’ve never doubted his affection.
The love I feel from my mom’s brothers is a bright and sturdy certainty, too, even if it’s rarely expressed through routine exchanges of caring such as phone calls or birthday cards. But I always feel it in their presence. That tribe includes my Uncle Tony, who gives the best hugs, Uncle Martin, who makes me laugh, almost nonstop, and Uncle Harold, who is buddy and sage guide rolled into one. He asks the pointed questions about our careers, life goals and relationships, inviting an easy confidence with his gregarious affability, but he’s also the one able to turn any outing into a fun adventure, whether it’s a routine walk around the neighborhood or a sightseeing tour of St. Lucia.
Beyond those beloved and connected by blood, I am fortunate to have the support of a special cadre of men. There is Garth, the husband of my mom’s best friend Julie, whom I worked for when I was in high school. He has always been a champion of my career, whether academically or professionally, but what I most appreciate about him is regardless of what I’m up to in life, and how frequently or infrequently I see him, he makes me feel that I matter.
Two years ago, when my mom and I traveled to Italy with he and his wife, along with family friends Barb and Mike, I was the one Garth asked to step into photo after photo when others tired of his zeal. It became a joke that I was his model, but I felt honored knowing that place would have been reserved for his daughter or sons, had they been on the trip. And the day I agreed to tour Rome’s Palatine Hill with him when everyone else was too exhausted from our morning activities, knowing how happy he was to have the company was motivation enough for me, though our tour through the ancient city’s most desired address, with its palatial ruins and spectacular views, turned out to be a highlight of the day for both of us.
A week later, Mike and I would be the ones hustling through Piazza dei Miracoli, excited to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa together. We arrived too late for the last tour, and I was disappointed to have missed not only that opportunity but the chance to share it with him. Mike has been in my life since I was 10, he and Barb among the first neighbors to befriend us when my family moved to the states from St. Lucia. He was the one who helped my brother and me to carve our first Halloween pumpkins and one of my favorite gifts as a girl came from him: the wool sweater he’d worn while in the Navy.
When my mom and I visited Pearl Harbor last year, joining Barb and Mike on vacation in Hawaii, it was a profound honor to be there with Mike. Knowing tears were streaming down his face, as they were mine, while we watched a video of the attacks on Dec. 7, 1941, prior to boarding a boat to take us to the USS Arizona Memorial, I felt a new appreciation for his own service to our country, a deeper pride in the man he was and is.
I am grateful, too, for my ex’s father, who once told me he couldn’t imagine not celebrating me every day were I his daughter. Even last year as my relationship with his son faltered, he assured me I would always be a daughter to him. He still checks in now and then to see how I’m doing, still signs off his emails and texts with the nickname I gave him well before we’d ever met and still sends me his love.
And every day, to my left sits a man who can tell what I’m thinking with a single look at my face. For more than a decade, he has had a ringside seat for my life’s joys and heartbreak, for the big changes and new adventures, the crazy impulses and loopy antics. I’ve laughed with him and cried with him and probably shared more than most would with a boss but, to me, he’s always been so much more.
Once, when Garth and Mike were trading stories from my younger days at a cookout, my mom jokingly asked how many fathers I had.
My dad is the only one to hold that earthly honor. Today, I salute him and my mom’s late partner, Lou, and I celebrate my brother, too. But I also give thanks for the other men circling me with their love and encouragement, shepherding light through my life.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times