For the Week of June18, 2016: Becoming “Father”

I miss you every day–the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.

(From:  “Father” in Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser)

It is an old photo, retrieved from the dozens of pictures taken in the summer of 1972, one that makes me smile even now.  In it, my first husband and his brother are clowning for the picture, a seventies version of a “selfie,” achieved with the shutter lag of his camera.  But it’s the faces of my daughters—ones that then ignited a young mother’s anxiety– that make us all laugh, remembering the oftentimes “wild and crazy guy” their father was.  My youngest, nine months old, is sliding toward the floor from her father’s arms, alarm on her face, while the oldest, by just a year and a half, is crying loudly as her grinning uncle grips her arm tightly.  It was intended as a “happy” group photo, but the younger members in the picture were not smiling, even as their father and uncle laughed and counted the seconds to the flash and shutter click.

The picture appeared  last night, posted on my daughter’s Facebook page  with the words, “My hero; I still miss you, Daddy.”  And she does, even though he’s been gone for 35 years, his life abruptly ended in a drowning accident when my daughters were just nine and ten.  Yet their memories of “Daddy” are still alive, as are mine.  I see his smile, hear his voice in one daughter’s face and the other’s penchant for political discourse.  We all carry vivid memories of him, stories that have been told and re-told.  “Death,” Jim Harrison wrote, “steals everything but our stories.”

For several years after his death, I was mother and father to my daughters, weathering our shared grief and loss and navigating the sturm and drang of adolescence as a single parent.  “Daddy” became larger than life in the girls’ minds, and, not surprisingly, they grew close to their father’s parents in the subsequent years, helping one another keep his memory alive.  It was during their teens that I met and later married my husband, John.  Although he’d been married before, he never had children.  I worried, as our  relationship began, that my two strong-willed adolescents might frighten him away, but John weathered their ups and downs with more patience than I thought possible.

He never tried to assume the moniker of “Dad,” honoring their undying love for the father they’d lost and always encouraging of their stories of him.  Gradually, the bonds between John and my daughters grew.  He became “Bubbie,” responding to them with patience, affection and the ability to dance that conflicted tango of step-fatherhood:  “I love you”—“don’t even think that I love you.”

He taught them to drive, visited my eldest daughter on her first work-study program in rural Thailand while on a World Bank project in Laos, and drove cross-country from California to New York with my younger daughter when my career took me to New York City.  Little by little, and without any fanfare, their relationship deepened and their bond with each other was cemented.  “This is my father,” my eldest daughter said as she introduced him to a former high school teacher three years later.  My heart skipped a beat, but John simply extended his hand and said “hello,” although I saw his tears glistening in his eyes.  He’s been in their lives now for 29 years and has firmly rooted himself as stepfather to my daughters and “Grandpa” to their children.

Even though there were video calls and Father’s Day gifts for John this morning, I know both daughters always remember their dead father on this day–and many other days of the year.  They miss him even now, as I do my own, but they are generous in the love and affection they have with John.  I am deeply grateful for how John he loves my daughters wholeheartedly and how he has so willingly embraced them in his life, demonstrating as much concern and commitment to their growth and well-being as any birth father.

He wasn’t hard on us kids,
never struck us…

He used to sing in the car
bought us root beers along the road.
He loved us with his deeds.

(From: “A Father’s Pain,” in A River Remains by Larry Smith)

Writing Suggestion: 

The memories we hold of our fathers or the father figures in our lives are full of feelings and of stories.  For example, take a look at the range of poems about fathers featured on the Poetry Foundation site.  What stories do you carry about your father or a father figure?  Why not write one that is especially important, humorous or poignant?

I salute you all, the fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, all the men who have played a loving role in a fatherless child’s life.  Whether you helped to birth a son or daughter, or were “like” fathers to any child, teenager or adult, Happy Father’s Day.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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