On A Dad-Less Father’s Day

It is 5:27AM. It is nearly sunrise. I look toward the lush, verdant mountain to the east, so unlike the scorched peaks I am accustomed to seeing in drought-plagued Los Angeles. The hotel staff told me last night I would need to climb to the top of Aspen mountain to the south to catch a glimpse of the sun before it crested overhead, but dawn hikes do not appeal to me, so I wait on my balcony instead, wait for the mix of colors to fill the sky.

It’s Father’s Day morning.

It’s a chilly forty-eight degrees, and I am bundled in the light blue Tommy Bahama sweatshirt that my dad wore in one of our last photos together. It still smells of him, a mix of detergent and deodorant and dogs and Dad that I remember inhaling every time I hugged him, and I’ve saved it for this morning because I know it won’t take long before the sweatshirt smells like me instead of him and on this first Father’s Day without him here, I need it to smell like him.

I have a long-sleeved navy t-shirt of his that I keep in a bottom dresser drawer at home, as if keeping it in that drawer will somehow keep the scent trapped inside. I Google how to preserve scent in clothing and learn that sealing it in a plastic bag may help, but that the scent will escape and diminish every time I open the bag, which does nothing to reassure me of its longevity. Even as I wrap the sleeves around my face, and bury my nose amongst the golden dog hairs and white deodorant stains that cling to its cotton front, I recognize the absurdity of it. I am intentionally sniffing a dirty shirt. But for a moment, I remember, and the image of him wearing this shirt with red shorts and sockless boat shoes while walking Brody around the loop of his street is so clear that I can ignore the absurdity. I am grateful that he went into the hospital on a Friday morning, and that this shirt escaped the laundry that might otherwise have been done that weekend.

Today is the longest day of the year.

On Tuesday, it will be exactly four months since he died, and all of the things I have already done without him astonish me.

I went to Italy in March without bringing him back the blue Missoni tie that I accidentally picked out at the store, before admitting that I didn’t need to buy him a souvenir on this trip. I spent his April birthday in New Jersey without cake or presents, with the Golden Retriever card I had purchased for him in January unsigned in my carry-on. I opened the favorites menu on my phone, hovering over his name and picture in the number two slot, wanting to tell him about my Memorial Day, and to hear about the Dog Park parade he always organized. I chose, negotiated and bought a car without his guidance before I realized that I could do it on my own, a fact that brings me no pride or comfort.

Every day I move forward, I feel myself moving away from him.

He slips away, and sometimes the pieces are gone before I even notice. I attempt to bring up his Facebook page only to find it deactivated. I scroll through my voicemails to discover there are only two from him: the fourteen-second one he left before I went to Argentina in November, and the ten-second one he left on my return, when I was on the other line with my mom, when if I had picked up, he would have told me about Kelly’s death. Illogically, that voicemail shows the sender as Unknown. Our texts and WhatApp conversations I deleted regularly, leaving just two short exchanges: from January when he was in Geneva and I was in Guatemala, and from the hospital in February, when he told me to dress warmly for his under-heated ICU room. I flip through my camera roll. There are a finite number of pictures of us, all of which I have already seen; we have shot all of the pictures we will ever take together.

Every day I become more aware of how little of have left of him.

The memories feel fleeting, and hidden among the ones that I want to remember are the ones I don’t. Last year, he told me over breakfast at a diner that I can be hard on people, that sometimes I needed to be more forgiving. The pancakes I was eating became a mix of sawdust and shame in my throat, and I was unable to choke them down. I hated that my father knew this about me, and that I had been too hard on him so many times. I was ashamed that he was always number two on my phone, and in my life, and yet he was always there, smiling and usually with Dunkin Donuts coffee and his navy long sleeved t-shirt covered in dog hair, at four in the morning when I needed a ride to the airport.

I type the words so many times before noticing that only one letter separates the two: Dad. Dead. Dad. Dead. We were three, and then four, and then six, and now there is no we.

I took the redeye to New Jersey on June 15th, 2013. I arranged other rides to and from the airport. I was on the ground for less than twenty-four hours before I flew back to Los Angeles. I was exhausted, the timing was terrible, and he was getting a colonoscopy the next day. But it was perfect, the day I showed up on his doorstep, watched him pad down the hallway and surprised my dad for Father’s Day. We couldn’t know at the time that it was the last we would spend together. It was a day that I put him in the number one slot.

Two weeks ago, I forced myself to face to card aisle at CVS. I am not fatherless for Father’s Day—I have a loving grandfather, a wonderful stepfather. I found cards that didn’t say “Dad” on them. I thought about buying a card for my dad, one last time, but I couldn’t bear to buy another card he would never receive. I composed its message instead.

Dear Dad,

Thank you for allowing me to be your daughter.

Even when I was a relentlessly non-sleeping baby. Even when I was a bratty toddler. Even when I was embarrassed to be seen with you in my tweens. Even when I rolled my eyes and scoffed at you in my teens, so that you would throw up your hands and ask, “why do I even bother?” Even when I called you a liar once in my twenties. Even when I phoned you daily asking you for car advice—four separate times—in in my thirties.

Even when I didn’t get you a good Father’s Day gift. Even when I sent your birthday card late. Even when I disappointed you. Even when I thought I knew everything. Even when I hurt your feelings. Even when I didn’t come home for Christmas. Even when I took you for granted. Even when I was impatient with you. Even when I made choices you didn’t understand. Even when I told you the watch you gave me didn’t go with my outfits. Even when I put you second.

Thank you for allowing me to always be your daughter, and for always being my dad. I love you.

At the exact moment I type those last words, the sun that I have been waiting two hours for finally rises above the top of the mountain on Father’s Day, the longest day of this year. It’s now fifty-six degrees, the hot sun baking everything in its path. I take off his sweatshirt, and fold it carefully back into my suitcase, hoping to hold onto his scent, and him, just a bit longer.

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Father's Day 2012

Father’s Day 2012

Father's Day 2013

Father’s Day 2013

29 thoughts on “On A Dad-Less Father’s Day

  1. I am enjoying a fun morning with my wife and sixteen-year-old daughter. You piece brought tears to my eyes, in a joyful and grateful way. Thank you.

  2. Thinking of you today. I lost my Dad 6 months ago and you put some of my exact feelings into words. Thank you for this:) It feels like a gift on a day like this.

  3. Katie, this is such a great piece and reminds us all to make sure we love always and unconditionally and never to take any moments for granted.

  4. Every time I think I’ve read “the best thing you’ve ever written” you write something better. Your Dad was a very special person and I can see and hear him in this incredibly sensitive piece. He is still so proud of you, Katie! xo

  5. Thank you for sharing this, my family is friends with your Uncle Bob and Aunt Kathy. I grew up visiting them and they would visit us whenever they were in NJ. I lost my Father 18 years ago when I was 13. This is a great tribute of sorts about your relationship with you Dad.

  6. Into trough this every Father’s Day. Summer is hard for me: Father’s Day in June, my dad’s birthday in July and the anniversary of his passing in August. Each month I go through so many emotions and I try to do something in honor of my dad so that I can keep his memory alive for myself and for my kids. But it never gets easier. It changes into something you learn to live with but when the specific dates are facing you it opens up the wounds and reminds you of how much you miss him and how much he is missing. I adored my dad and I was an only child so my memories are solely my own which is great in a selfish way but not so great when I want to reminisce about him, all I have is myself.
    Thank you for writing something so thought provoking.

  7. Katie, I found your post today, and I just wanted to give you a big hug. Thank you for sharing and god bless you in your healing.

  8. So I only made it half way through before I had to take a beak. Tears streaming down my face as I picture you on that balcony, I could no longer read. Oh, Katie. I only wish we met sooner. I too-carry around a blank birthday card for my dad, I never took the time to fill it out and send it that last October of his life.
    I recall “catching” myself when I began to feel joy again. Feeling as if my moving forward and living life was in some way, disrespectful of all that he was to me.
    You have a very special gift my friend. We met briefly, just a few weeks ago -yet I feel I have known you my whole life.

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