This love will linger in the empty space it filled

A little more than two years ago, when I moved into my condo, my mom’s companion Lou bought me a fireplace as a housewarming present.

The previous owner had an electric one, framed in gorgeous white-painted wood, against the living room wall and from the moment I saw it, I knew I, too, would have a fireplace in that exact spot.

And Lou, eager to be a part of all the preparations for my big move, as my mom and I shopped for furniture and I excitedly pondered paint colors and décor schemes, decided that would be his contribution to getting me settled in my new home.

I scanned dozens of websites to pick the perfect fireplace and when it arrived the week after I moved in, tore open the box, expecting an easy do-it-yourself project that would have me sitting in front of its blazing warmth within the hour. Instead, as I pulled out piece after piece of wood, along with an elaborate set of instructions for assembling them to frame the insert, I quickly became overwhelmed. A few days later, Lou came to the rescue. He put the firebox together and mounted the insert not quite perfectly — given all the excessive hovering my mom and I did, why would he listen to us when we told him the base was crooked? — but to me, it was wonderful to simply have it up, commanding attention, just as I knew it would, against my cobalt blue wall.

That Lou would drive the 35 minutes to my house toward the end of what had been a tiring Saturday to put together the fireplace meant a lot to me then. But it wasn’t until a dear friend shared her reaction to that gesture earlier this year that I was struck not just by the loving significance of that moment but the countless others that had come before it.

Lou died suddenly last April. The week we learned he had pancreatic cancer was also the week we lost him, time, and we believe his stubborn refusal to have us witness his suffering, stealing him from us before we could even say goodbye. He was in our lives for 18 years, a gentle giant with the softest spot for my mom and a kind and reassuring hand always outstretched to my brother and me for whatever we might need. In all those years, he never tried to be a dad to either of us, ever protective and respectful of own relationship with our father, and I never expected him to fill that role.

Yet after watching my friend’s eyes fill with tears as she told me how moved she was when he came over to put together my fireplace because “that’s what a father would do,” I realized there were so many times when Lou had been exactly that to me, even if I may not have known that was what I wanted.

With a father who’s lived thousands of miles away in St. Lucia for half of my life and with whom I’ve also navigated many a turbulent passage, often feeling thwarted in my attempts to sustain a genuine connection given the tortured, brooding thoughts that keep him company, I entered adulthood without the influence of a strong male figure.

Yes, I love my father and I know unequivocally how deeply he loves me. In his own way, between weekly phone calls and sporadic visits since he and my mom divorced, he has tried to be a shepherd, a champion, a sheltering tree on my path. But the ravages of illness and one personal crisis after another in recent years have often made it feel like I am the one parenting him.

And so, Lou, by virtue of his constancy, stepped in to fill a void I didn’t even know I felt. When he passed and I was unexpectedly stormed by grief, I eventually realized I also was mourning the relationship I’ve never been able to have with my dad. But in the last few weeks, with the one-year anniversary of his death looming on April 30, I’ve been mourning, too, a once-receding emptiness, the place he filled a hollow I’d kept hidden to shield an unbearable ache.

Of course, Lou never took my dad’s place. He couldn’t. But he was the one who replaced my car battery when it died, the one who drove into the city to unclog an ex’s sink while he was away (more than wanting to ensure I’d be able to shower there, I knew he wanted to make certain I was safe), the one who got me a good deal on every car purchase, who took me out to lunch or dinner on every birthday and brought me cinnamon buns for no reason other than he knew how much I loved them. When he bought me a card, he often wrote my name on the front, as if I were the sole inspiration behind the text. And when I was single, he gave me flowers on every Valentine’s Day, along with the gorgeous tropical bouquets he enjoyed picking out for my mom.

At Lou’s memorial service last year, one of his sons told my brother and me that Lou loved us like his own children. Yet he never pushed or asserted that position. He simply opened his heart and let us in. And somehow, without realizing it, I thrived in the secure warmth of that unconditional love.

Now that he is gone, I want so much to acknowledge that blessing, to give voice to what was unspoken between us, to draw him back and let myself savor our deepening connection with a greater mindfulness and transparency. I want to thank him for being what I needed when I wasn’t even aware of my heart’s wanting, for showing me, when I’d let myself see it, the power and comfort of a steady, loving male presence.

On the inside of the last card Lou gave me for my birthday a month before he died were the words “I love the way love shines in you.” And, oh, how it shone in you, too, Lou — so very brightly that its waning from my everyday won’t keep it from illuminating the dawnings still to come.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times