I am thinking about my dad today. It happens almost imperceptibly as this date draws near, that I begin thinking about him more and more, feeling a familiar heaviness. Then I look at a calendar and remember, and it makes sense.
When I was five, he passed away on this day. It was not a surprise; he had been sick my entire life. One of two memories I have of him is visiting the hospital and sneaking behind the chair in his room to pull the paper mask we had to wear off my face, allowing myself to breathe freely. The other is much better: a hazy recollection of an early birthday party, me in a frothy pink dress, my dad lifting me above his head to fly like an airplane.
This year was a particularly hard one in terms of missing my dad. In the months leading up to my wedding, I grieved the fact that he would not be there to walk me down the aisle or to share a dance with me. Though I had always known this would be true, to face the reality of it made the grief new. And I guess this is what strikes me about having lived 22 years without my dad, how my sadness about missing him changes as I grow older. How with each new milestone, some part of me is always aware of his absence.
My dad was a teacher, and sometimes I wonder if some part of my own decision to teach was to honor him. By all accounts, he was a fantastic, dynamic, and beloved teacher, and on particularly challenging days, I wish I could call him on my way home to seek advice and encouragement. I wonder what he would think about my career choice and whether he would be proud of the work I do in my classroom, even on days when I feel like I’m not doing enough.
Whenever a student, usually in an early personal writing assignment, reveals to me that he or she has lost a parent, I want to leap through the page to offer comfort. I’ve had colleagues who bristle at such personal writing early on, wondering why a student would share something like this so quickly. But I just wish I could hug my student and sit with her and say, “I get it. I get why you shared this with me.” Because when you are a kid and your parent has died, what else is there to write about? It is the most salient, relevant, impactful thing that has happened in your young life. It is the moment by which you define your life: before death and after death. It cannot be ignored or forgotten, and when asked to share something about yourself, what else can be said? I wish I could share this understanding, this kinship with my students, beyond the margin note I leave, which is usually something like: “My father also died when I was very young. Thank you for sharing this with me.” I hope they can read between the lines and understand what I’m really trying to say. Which is, I get it, and it sucks, but you’ll be ok.