Father’s Day always brings mixed emotions for me. While I honor the important role fathers can play in a child’s life and I see my husband thrive as “dad”, I also lament the years of fatherhood lost for so many others.
My own dad died when I was 14 after a long illness. He wasn’t my everyday parent, but he was still very important to me. I have good memories of playing card games – he let me win a lot. I remember feeling bad that I always beat him, so sometimes I intentionally played bad to let him win.
We watched Cleveland Brown’s football, golf, westerns and Shirley Temple movies on Sundays in his top floor apartment in the small Michigan town I grew up in. He had one of those brown floral pattern couches that were so popular in the 80s and brown shag carpet. A small wooden table sat in his kitchenette where we’d eat, talk, or play games.
Sports and games were deeply-rooted in my relationship with my dad. I remember my first real catch playing baseball at Island Park in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. One of my siblings hit a line drive right at me. I stuck out my glove and somehow the ball stayed in. My dad and siblings ran towards me and celebrated my triumph. That feeling of accomplishment and celebration is one I tried to capture for many years as an athlete.
When my dad was well enough, he’d pull up to my Little League games in his brown 1979 Chevy Impala and park in the grass just outside the ball field. A good hit or play on my part would always warrant a series of honks from him. How I loved to hear that horn.
After the game I’d run over and give him a hug. He’d wrap his arms around me, his button-down cotton shirt open in the summer heat, his chest emblazoned with a large bald eagle tattoo – a relic from his Army days. We’d talk for a few minutes before I headed home with my mom.
He loved to tell stories and jokes. I’d call him up on the phone and never know what silly thing he might say. Once he answered the phone and instead of saying “hello”, I heard “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” I loved seeing that side of him.
Around the time I turned eight, we started to go to church with him. It had red carpet and a bumpy white ceiling that I spent a lot of time staring at. I hated dressing up and sitting in the uncomfortable pews. When my boredom reached its peak, I’d nudge him and ask for a stick of Juicy Fruit gum or abscond to the bathroom just to get out of the service for a few minutes.
I was baptized at this church. I remember not feeling ready, but my dad was sick and I knew it would make him happy. Eventually he became too sick to come with us, so we’d go to the service and then walk the block over to his apartment and visit for the remainder of the day.
During the last few years of his life, it became harder and harder for him to breath. He’d have long coughing fits and I’d wonder if it would ever stop. Every couple of hours, he took breathing treatments to help clear his lungs.
The last time I saw him was New Year’s Day, 1997. He was staying at my grandpa’s house by that time. He had an adjustable hospital bed set up in his bedroom. I pulled a chair up to it and we watched football together. We talked about school and sports. There was a moment that day when he was coughing pretty badly and I wondered if he was going to die right there in front of me.
At the end of the visit, he told me he loved me one more time and we hugged. I remember feeling optimistic as I left. Despite the almost dying part, we’d had a really nice visit and I was looking forward to seeing him again soon.
I ran to my room and slammed the door several times. Then I fell to the floor and cried. I was disappointed and heartbroken. And now, 18 years later, I still am. That’s the thing about death – it doesn’t ask for permission.
He never got to see me graduate from high school, college, or graduate school. On my wedding day, my mom walked me down the aisle. My kids know that grandpa is in heaven with Jesus. He never got to see me become the person I am.
It’s Father’s Day. I celebrate the great dads out there, but I’ll always be a little heartbroken. I’ll always lament the memories we could have made. I’ll always think about what could have been.