Six Things I’ve Learned in My Past Two Years Without My Father
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Nearly two years after my father shrugged off this mortal coil and turned into a butterfly, I am left with a hole where a holiday used to be.
What is Father’s Day without a father to celebrate it with? A father to buy a goofy card for?
A father to sit with and hear his stories of growing up in a different age and time?
It’s empty, that’s what it is. No photo album or celebration of life can fill the living, breathing, wisdom-spouting chasm left by a good father.
And yet it’s an emptiness that resonates with the memories, conversations and experiences that have gone before. And it’s an emptiness that teaches profound lessons about life and our place in the world.
Here are six things I’ve discovered in these past two years without the man who taught me what being a man was all about:
1) The view is forever different. The important people in our lives are like trees in the picture of our lives. The more important those people are, the bigger the tree and the deeper the roots. If we’re lucky enough, as I have been, to have had both parents deeply involved in our lives, they are like twin oaks in that picture. They were big when we were little, and with each year that has passed, they’ve grown even taller and broader. For decades, we’ve looked out our eyes and seen those twin oaks at the center of our view. We expect them always to be there, fixed and unchanging. Then one day one of those oaks is no longer there, and the view just doesn’t look the same. There’s a big gap where that big old tree used to be. You look out again and again, expecting the tree to reappear, but it doesn’t. As time goes by, you begin to realize that you’re never get used to this new and different view, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
2) The other people in your life become more important. We only get to have so many trees in our life’s picture. Passing acquaintances fly in and out of our lives like birds, but the really important people—our parents, our best friends, our kids—are fixed in our landscape. This is especially true for men, who tend to have a smaller social network than women. We men like to feign our self-reliance and self-sufficiency. We like to think we don’t need anyone else. But we do, of course, and when one of our parents dies, we lean even more so on the other important trees in our lives. We cherish them even more than we did before, knowing they can be cut down at any time. We may even—God forbid!—begin to be more vocal in reminding those other important people in our lives that we love and treasure them. Our kids think we’re getting soppy in our old age. That’s okay. Soppiness is the birthright of the wise.
3) You go in search of his ghost. We who have lost a parent are ghost-searchers. We can’t help it. When you’ve lost someone who took up such a huge place in your life, it’s only natural that you’ll go looking for him. You go to the place where he once stood and try to feel his energy. You’re drawn to that place. You know that space is empty, that there’s nothing there, but you want to feel his energy again. You want to stand beneath his grand, broad canopy and feel the sun slanting down through the leaves. You want to climb his trunk and hang on a branch like you used to as a kid. Just one more time. Just one more time. But there are no more times. You can only stand there listening for his voice in the wind. And if you listen close, you can hear it. He’s still there. His roots are deep.
4) You become more keenly aware of your mortality. The felling of your parent has shaken the ground under your feet. Yes, you’ve experienced death and loss before, but never someone as big as this or as close to you as this. Death is no longer a theoretical thing. You’ve sat by your parent’s bedside holding his hand as he was leaving this world, and you know what Death looks like. The grim reaper is getting closer. He’s wiping out the generation above you, and now he’s coming for you. When that realization begins to sink in, something amazing happens. Everything becomes more vital and vivid. Every day, every moment, every color, every experience. You see life’s colors in high definition.
5) You become aware of your own size and vital importance. With that great big majestic tree gone from the landscape of your world, you become aware how big you are. You are no longer a sapling. You have grown to become a tall shade tree for other saplings. They are all down there. Your kids. Your nieces and nephews. Even the younger people who work with and for you. They are all looking up to you. Now’s the time to take your rightful place as one of the biggest trees in the field. To be an example for the younger saplings around you, just as your father did for you. Your legacy will depend on what you do in these precious years ahead. Don’t lose the opportunity.
6) You become less serious and more adventurous. The day is getting old. The sun’s warmth is beginning to wane ever so slightly as it crosses into the second half of its orbit. You can feel it. You know now, in a very real and tangible way, that life is short and fleeting, and each moment is precious. If there are things you want to do, now’s the time to do them. While there is time. While you are healthy. While others who are important to you are healthy. Now, now, now. It’s time to loosen up. Time to let go of the silly inhibitions that have always held you back from doing what you’ve always wanted to do. If not now, then when? Spread those branches.
Do a dance in the wind.
Sing in the rain.
Who cares what other people think? Who cares if you embarrass those younger saplings? One day, they will understand what you understand now. That life is a gift, meant to be enjoyed, and every moment we’re not enjoying it is an opportunity wasted. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.