This year will be the second year I face Father’s Day without a key ingredient: a dad.
To be completely honest, I had forgotten that Father’s Day was approaching until a friend asked how I was doing during “this time of year”. My family will tell you that I have never been good with these holidays, often forgetting birthdays and anniversaries until the last minute, sometimes completely. I even forgot my friend had asked me about Father’s Day, as I deflected her sympathy aside with a signature optimistic “I’m handling it” response, something along the lines of “it’s been almost two years since he passed, and “I just want to focus on preventing anyone else’s father from dying of cancer” or “I’m just happy I got to spend so many Father's Days with him while I could.”
Then the emails started arriving. Toms, Amazon, GroupOn and a horde of other brands that spam my inbox from time to time started asking insensitive, albeit rhetorical, questions that caught me off guard: “Does your dad still wear socks and sandals?” asked one subject line.
“Karis: Buy Dad what he wants this Father’s Day” said another.
Last year there was even one that played on the “pregnant man” news story that captured tabloid headlines for months: “Father’s Day deals for the man who felt you kick inside him for 9 months”.
It’s easy to be mad at these "insensitive" emails. I thought of hitting reply and slamming these companies with a bitter response. Shouldn’t some invasive browser cookie tracked my visits to his Caring Bridge page and obituary, fed back information to marketing departments that I should be categorized as “fatherless”? I hit delete with a purposefully harsh keystroke, hoped my anger would resonate through the web. Obviously it didn’t; the emails continued.
But it did get me thinking: how does one deal with holidays celebrating those they have lost? I know I am not the only one who has faced this: millions of fathers, mothers, children die every year, and every year their birthdays, Mother's and Father's days incessantly arrive, despite what we may wish. What is the best course of action?
I thought about retreating into grief as the day grew nearer. I laid low last year, preferring to keep quiet, internalizing what I was still dealing with on a daily basis. It’s not hard to do, as I was living away from home in my college city. In fact, being in college has been one of the hardest parts about losing my dad: at a time when everyone is moving fast toward their future, further away from home than ever before, all you want to do is regress to a time when the future didn’t mean time without a loved one. When home meant a nuclear family, not one that used to be. And it isn't too difficult to avoid these thoughts in this setting. Most 18-22 year olds don't think or talk about death often. Why would we? In this age, we're as alive and invincible as we'll ever be (or at least we often mistakenly feel that way).
Anger at an email is obviously trivial. It’s easy to be frustrated at these unknowingly insensitive subject lines, but they are not what caused my dad’s death, nor will be what heals my grief. Jealously seeing a father-daughter pair or pain when someone complains about their dad won’t be either. And laying low? That doesn't help me. Nor does it help the world that my dad left behind become any better than when he left it.
So my plan is to spend the day the way he would have. I'll appreciate all the time I spent with my dad, and the wonderfully supportive group of family and friends that will be here for me, no matter what. I’ll go on a bike ride on the bike he left to me, the one that helped him train for a bike ride across Minnesota that raised thousands of dollars for cancer research. I’ll wear his Norwegian daypack that traveled across Scandinavia, through two months of cancer treatments in Arizona, through countless chemo and radiation sessions, hoping some of that strength will rub off. I’ll read his copy of “Walden” with the interest I lacked when it was assigned in high school, hoping that somewhere his scribbles in the margins will speak to me, since he no longer can.
This won’t absolve my anger at cancer for taking my dad’s life. But it will help me make it through a day, and move on to see the next.
And just in those two days I’ve been given I get to live what he taught me by raising me for 20 years. Optimism, hope, simplicity, a constantly engaged mind and body, and finding pure joy in walking the dog or enjoying a Dairy Queen blizzard on a warm summer night.
My dad was really good at living in the moment, whatever that moment may hold, good or bad. So in this moment I wish my friends, family and their dads the happiest Father's Day they have ever had.
And to those emails? I hope they make a dad out there know that he is loved, and remind a son/daughter to get their dad what he wants this Father’s Day.
Even if he wears socks and sandals.