fathers matter more than you'll ever know.

Tomorrow is Father's Day. Can we talk about Dads for a bit? (Of course we can! It's Father's Day!) Specifically, let's talk about MY dad, since that's a dad I know a lot about. Here's a picture of Mr. S when he graduated Pennsylvania Military College:
That's a sword in his right hand, NRA. Real men don't need guns.
My dad was a complicated man. He was funny and smart. He was an oral storyteller. He came from a long line of oral storytellers. He probably should have been a lawyer--he loved to research and lecture and argue. Once, I asked him what that thing on the side of our house was that went around and around. For the next hour, I got the answer (a water meter), the history of water meters, how they're read, how we're billed for how they're read, who reads them, how water gets treated and delivered to homes...I could go on. Please take a deep breath here and attempt to conjure up a picture of a ten year old girl with big, brown eyes and a bad Dorothy Hamill haircut who just wants to get back to watching The Love Boat. I casually asked a quick question; ten hours later...holy encyclopedia. Sheer torture.

My father and I also had a complicated relationship. My father was the sun, and the moon, and all the stars in all the galaxies. I loved my dad and trusted him with every fiber of me. He was my hero: he protected me, taught me lots of things, he modeled for me how to be a good and decent and loyal and kind human being. But he could also be scary. He could fly into unpredictable rages and yell, and he had a very loud, deep, booming voice when he did this. He was angry about a lot of things. I don't know what most of them were, but I often wonder if he was that angry before or after serving in Vietnam (which he didn't speak much about). And he drank. And when he drank, he really, really drank. He was never abusive when drinking--he just drank so much he'd get completely sick and stay in bed the next day and we just sort of tiptoed around, giving him space.

Fortunately, he didn't drink a lot when I was a kid. We lived in a dry county--meaning, you could have alcohol in your house, but you'd have to drive to a wet county for it because there was no way to buy it where we lived...no alcohol in restaurants, none in grocery stores, no bars, etc. Nada. Like Iran, but Pentecostal. In a way, living in a dry county sort of saved our family; I'm not sure we'd have ever seen my dad had we lived somewhere with a lot of bars.

My dad came from a long line of drinkers, many of whom never made it out of their 50's. In fact, my father died at the heartbreakingly young age of 51. Five years prior, he'd been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. And when they diagnosed him, the doctors told him two things: (1) he wasn't eligible for the only way to save his life (a heart transplant) due to his life style choices and apparent reluctance to change them, and (2) most people had, on average, about 5 years to live post-diagnosis. Some died immediately; some changed their lifestyles and lived another 20 years. Most died within 5, on average. My dad fit into the average category.

My father's heart was working at only 20% of its full capacity when he died in February of 2001. He was on tons of medicines to keep him alive, medicines that simply helped him function. Without them, he wouldn't have been able to walk from one end of a room to another. My father's dear heart was very, very sick.

The day he died, he came home from work and did his usual: checked email, went to bed, turned on the History Channel, fell asleep. Later that night, my mom asked me to wake him up so he wouldn't be late for work (he was a night shift manager for a fiber optics company). I begged to differ; waking up my dad was like poking a bear. I'd rather play with rattle snakes, yo. So my mom did it (you know where this is going, right?). And a few minutes later called, "Amy, something is wrong with your dad! He's dead. I think he's really dead!"

I was so irritated, because (have I mentioned this before?) my mom leans heavily toward the overly dramatic--to be honest, I've always had the sneaking suspicion I hail from a long line of undiscovered actors. So I sighed a (very dramatic) sigh and walked into the bedroom. The lights were on, the overhead fan was on, the TV was on...but something was very, very wrong. It was too still, too quiet. I stood at the foot of my dad's bed; I knew I could or should touch him, shake him to wake him up, but I didn't want to because I also sensed it would become far, far too real for me at that point.

And so I called to him: "Daddy. Daddy, wake up." I hadn't called him Daddy since I was 14 and shyly, in a terrified kind of way, told him I thought I was getting a tad too old to call him "Daddy," and didn't he think so too? (He did not; his feelings were totally hurt.)

Standing at the foot of his bed, looking at his unnaturally still, pale body, I called him Daddy over and over and over because I thought: If I call him Daddy, he'll hear me and think I'm his little girl again, and he'll know: oh, my little girl is calling for me, I need to go back. Please come back, Daddy. Please come back.

After a minute of this my brain said: Oh. Oh, he's gone. Things were suddenly set into motion and it was traumatic.

Two things about this night:

1-Paramedics showed up eventually to examine my dad. They sent two paramedics to our house: an older man and a younger man. I remember the younger man had a big moustache and glasses. One of the things that worried me most about the whole thing was that I'd been at the house from about 5:00 that afternoon. I sat in the living room in full view of his bedroom. The door was open, and I saw him lying in bed. Was I just sitting there, watching television, grading papers, while my dad was struggling to breathe? I know CPR; could I have saved him? When the two paramedics came out, this was the only question I asked: I know CPR, could I have done something to help when I got here at 5? The older paramedic said, No. No, judging from the way the blood has pooled, your dad died about 1 or 2. By the time you came home, there was nothing you could have done.

That's when shit got real. I remember my knees giving out, because my dad was totally, completely gone. He wasn't here anymore. Where did he go? Was he okay? I would never hear his voice again. I would never have to sit and listen to him talk and talk and talk and talk. It was over. It was over.

I could feel myself sort of sinking and the younger paramedic saw it, reached out and grabbed me, then pulled me to him and held me and just said over and over again, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry." It's one of the kindest things another human being has ever done for me. I wish I'd gotten his name; I can see his face, I can feel his arms around me, I can even smell him. Isn't that weird? I can't remember anything I did or said that night, and only two things stick in my brain like they happened yesterday--I remember my dad's body, what that felt and looked like. Just chaotic blur after that...then this paramedic, and everything about him. Whoever he is, wherever he is, I am so thankful to him. Kindness is so very important in every single interaction you have with people. I simply can't stress this enough.

2-You have to tell people right now, TODAY, that you love them. When they go, there is a big, gigantic, invisible door that shuts. You know they're on the other side; they're somewhere, but you can't see or hear them. You can't talk to them, they can't talk to you. Any little or big things you wanted to fix or work on while they were here? That's all done. That's done. You have to do it now, while people are here. The people who go--they're fine. I don't know where we go when this life is done, but I suspect wherever you go, you are fine. Those of us who are left behind are often haunted by the things we didn't say or do, that we could have or should have when we had the chance. Please go do it right now, if there is something you want to say to or do for someone, do it now while it's in your brain. I am sad I didn't go to lunch with my dad three days before he died, when he asked. I was busy; his offer was annoying, I wasn't sure what we'd even talk about. He talked so much, and I had to sit and listen. Now? I'd give almost anything to sit across a table from him and listen to him prattle on.

Do it NOW.

My father had emotional walls around his heart. I'm not sure what childhood or life experiences taught him to build these walls, but I do know my father taught me to also build walls. It took me a long time (and some therapy) to realize what had happened, and why, and I struggle daily with trying to keep my bricks in check because once they go up, they're incredibly hard for me to take down.

One of the things I love and appreciate about my husband is that he's not afraid to hug or tell Melissa how much he loves her. Men reading this: Please (please!) tell your little girls you love them. Please tell them this, every day. Please hold them and hug them and tell them how smart and wonderful they are. When they grow up, they go looking for you. Please don't send them on love quests for emotionally distant men who don't say I love you or tell them how insanely amazing they are as is. Please don't do that to your little girls.

Live every day as if it were your last.

I tell Miss M every night as she goes to sleep that she's my very best blessing. If something were to happen to me tomorrow, I want her to hear my voice in her head, as long as she can, telling her what a very good blessing she is. I do this because I once read a story by one of my heroes, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, in which she wrote about a conversation she had as a middle-aged woman, with her very old mother. She asked if her mother had any regrets. Her mother said yes, she did; she wished she had told Naomi more what a blessing she was. It was her only regret in life. Please tell your children what a blessing they are, because they really are (even in temper tantrum mode).

I hope I'm not making my dad sound like a bad dad. He was great dad, and one of my life's greatest teachers. I was blessed with a really GOOD dad. He was troubled, but also full of goodness and humor and heart. I always tell people he was like this: if you went out into a 20 degree snowstorm and forgot your coat, my dad would spend 15 minutes yelling at you about how ridiculous you were for forgetting your coat...and then he'd give you the coat off his back and freeze. My father was a big lion with the heart of a kitten. He taught me to tie my shoes, he taught me about water meters, he tried to teach me how to drive a car but totally freaked me out so my mom had to finish it. He taught me why loyalty and morality and kindness and integrity are important.

My dad was funny and good, talkative and informed, magnanimous and fair. He also flew into unpredictable rages that scared us. He drank too much, and when he drank too much it was confusing. He told really good stories and had a huge, contagious laugh and a really hilarious sneeze. He worked hard, and sometimes we didn't see him a lot. He had a tremendously difficult time saying the words "I love you," but had our pictures plastered all over his office. My father was very, very human, and the ending to his story is that his sweet, sick heart stopped before he and I got to take down some of our bricks. He left before any of us got to tell him good-bye. I would give just about anything right now to tell him thank you--thank you for being my dad, my wildly imperfect and wonderful dad.

I was consumed with grief for an immensely long time. I still miss him, every day. My mother has remarried a lovely man who's a wood-working techno-geek. And almost every time I visit them, I find a reason to walk into the guest bedroom that has the furniture from the room my father died in. I let myself feel him in those moments. The ironic thing is that I feel so much closer to him now than I did when he was alive. I feel my father all around me, very often: all the love he bricked up so carefully so nobody would hurt him? I sometimes wonder if it just blew wide open when his soul left his body and now it's everywhere, all around us. All the time.

A prized possession of mine is a card he gave me when I graduated high school. It's something I would grab on my way out if my house burned down. In it, he wrote about what a hard worker and conscientious person I'd turned into, and how proud he was. He wrote about how he wished he and his generation had done better with the world they were given, and that his wish for me was that I and my generation would do even better. And then, at the end of the card, he wrote four words:

I love you, 


I often toy with the idea of getting a tattoo. If I do, I'll have a talented artist copy those words onto me in his handwriting: I love you, Dad. If I don't do, it's okay: I kind of already tattooed them onto my heart awhile ago--they are words that have become embedded pieces of my soul because my eyes have burned them there. I wish I had more memories of him actually saying them. Please go hug your dad today, if he's still around. If you're a dad, please go hug your children and say those words out loud to them. Say them, whisper them, dream them, feel them, stroke them into your children's hair as they sleep, write them on their hearts until they become embedded pieces burned into their souls.

If you have little girls, please tell them how smart and capable and how proud they make you, please let them know they are wonderful and perfect and magical, as is. If you have little boys, please tell them how proud they make you, how you couldn't have asked for anything better in a son, how wonderful and perfect and amazing they are, as is. If you're a mother reading this, please go do all of that, too. Right now.

When the door closes and they can't touch you or talk to you or hear your voice anymore, it will matter so much more than you will ever know.

Dance like no one is watching.

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