My dad’s birthday falls about two weeks before Father’s Day. This year will be my third Father’s Day without him, without making a call home, without sending a card, without agonizing over what to get my dad so soon after struggling to come up with a present for his birthday.
My father was notoriously difficult to shop for, always claiming he didn't need anything. He didn't play golf -- as a teen, I begged him to take up playing just so I would have gift options. His response -- “Why I would to spend an afternoon trying to make a small white ball go into a hole?” -- robbed me of gift options.
He was a voracious reader but primarily of newspapers. He binge-watched various miniseries on the History Channel long before Breaking Bad made that a legitimate hobby. He loved his New York sports teams, so tickets to games were a viable option once I had the means for such luxuries. (But is it even a gift if your dad has to drive you both to Queens, navigate a crowded parking lot, and then pay for the overpriced hot dogs?)
Outside of work, my father was involved in our church and the Knights of Columbus, hobbies he enjoyed tremendously but that didn't exactly lend themselves to commercial exploitation. One year, while I was in law school and strapped for cash, I gave him a magnet for Father’s Day, which included a somewhat corny quote about how great a dad he was.
“You’re so hard to shop for,” I whined as he opened the small package. “I don’t need anything from you, Michelle,” he said, “but this is a very nice magnet.” With a flourish, he added it to the collection on the fridge.
My dad died of lung cancer on October 26, 2011.
The first few months after he died, my loss was so close to the surface that it felt impossible to think about anything else. I would lay awake at night, wondering whether I had said I love you enough.
The worst nights were when I worried about what it had been like for him, what he had been thinking when he was first told he had cancer, when we told him we were bringing him home on hospice, when family members came to visit from far away and spoke in hushed tones outside his room, when a stranger he had never met had to help him use the bathroom.
Those nights were, and still are, the hardest. I never asked my father what was going through his mind as cancer began to ravage his body. I am sure I could guess his answers: He was probably angry at his body for failing him, worried about leaving his family, sad that his time was up so soon, and terrified of what it all meant.
For the last few weeks of my dad’s life, I often slept on the couch near his hospital bed, listening to his labored breathing, my own heart seeming to stop when his breathing did.
Over time, the rawness of a painful loss fades away. I no longer expect to hear my dad’s voice when I open the front door of my parents’ house. I no longer expect him to call me on my birthday and sing an incredibly off key version of Happy Birthday. I no longer expect him to be waiting for me when I get off the train.
Life without someone you love eventually becomes a new normal. But as that new normal settles in around you, every once in awhile an event occurs that puts you right back into the heart-wrenching first moments of your loss.
Father’s Day does that for me.
We get inundated with Facebook posts extolling the virtues of dads, commercials reminding you to call your dad, card displays at the local Duane Reade, and emails reminding you that it's not late to get a delivery of Omaha Steaks to your father’s door.
But for those of us who had great fathers and lost them, it is too late for the cards, the phone calls, the steaks (and, yes, I did give those as a gift one year). It is easy to spend the day looking back and focusing on what you perceive to be all the missed opportunities to let your father know how much you loved and appreciated him.
Sadness mixes with regret and a typically sunny Sunday in June becomes a very dark day.
This year, I've resolved to not spend my day focusing on how much more I could have done. I may not have said enough in our 33 years together but I know that at the end of his life, with his wife and children at his side, my father knew he was loved. No baseball ticket, no Omaha Steak, not even a golf club, would have made any difference.
In the end, I think my dad would say he didn't need anything more from me.