Saturday, June 20, 2009

Father's Day Without a Father

My dad was 6' tall & lean, bald with a mustache, a loud laugh & an endless arsenal of bad jokes. He was an aspiring businessman who dropped out of college to support his family & went on to become a star salesman of, I kid you not, golf carts, genuinely charming & befriending everyone he met along the way. And while every little girl thinks her daddy is the most lovable man in the world, I, even now, still truly believe there was no one who met my dad that didn't like him. He worked a lot, but when I was little & an aspiring ballerina, he almost always made time to pick me up from my dance classes, usually stopping along the way at Swenson's, Northeast Ohio's most popular drive-in. He'd get a burger & I'd get a grilled cheese sandwich, & we'd both get sundaes before making our way home.

This past Friday was the 14th anniversary of my dad's death. He'd fought lung cancer for two years, & at age 10, I'd naively thought he was on the road to recovery. I visited him in the hospital on Father's Day 1995, where I made him an ice cream sundae with hot fudge at the sundae bar that the hospital had appropriately set up for the holiday, then I left to go to the lake with friends. The next day, I arrived home early from a sleepover to find my grandma & aunt on our back porch comforting my mother. The summer before I began sixth grade, my father was dead.

I am 24 years old now, & I've given three eulogies; I was recently shocked to learn that one of my bosses, a rabbi, is in his early 30s & has never even given one. The first of my three was for my 45-year-old father, written in rhyming poem form & recited outside on a sunny day in front of family & friends whose attendance I cannot remember. I only remember the other eulogies - one from my uncle, who talked of his friendship with my dad in terms of Sylvester Stallone films, & the other from my mom's best friend's husband, who talked about my dad's firm, memorable handshake. To this day, I strive to make the positive, warm first impression with my handshake that I learned at his funeral that my dad made with his.

There were, of course, times when I was bitter. How can you lose your father at 10 & not be? But it's been 14 years, & I've now been without him longer than I was with him. There have been times when I've even felt lucky to have been the first of my friends to lose a parent - times when I have been able to use my experience to comfort friends as they go through the loss of theirs, when I have wished desperately that they wouldn't have to suffer through what my mom & I did. I think of my dad often, but rarely with too much sadness anymore. Instead, I remember him fondly when I eat Oreos or watch the Indy 500, when I say I hate tomatoes & when I see a Mini Cooper. Of course, I wonder what life would be like had I grown up with him - but then I remember to be thankful for the many, many blessings that have come my way that would not have if he had been present. His headstone now reads "ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS," which he was; lucky for my mom & me, he surrounded himself with good guys, too.

My dad's two best friends are brothers. When he died, they together stepped in to take care of my mom & me the only way they knew how, inviting us to every family reunion, every holiday celebration & every birthday party, adopting us as their own. When I speak about them now, I refer to them as my family - without caveats, unless absolutely necessary. I begged my mom to drive me to the hospital to visit my grandfather before he died of leukemia my sophomore year, & I drove home from college to see my grandmother in hospice care before she did. The first time I every truly cried tears of joy was when I learned that my younger cousin would be receiving his liver transplant, & the first person I called in hysterics when I received my first speeding ticket was my older cousin. They sat with me in the hospital after my back surgery & attended both my high school & college graduation ceremonies. Recently, a little down after spending time with friends & their siblings, I texted my cousin Eric, also an only child, to tell him that the time with them had made me wonder what life would be like with a brother or sister, & that it had made me miss him; he responded immediately to tell me that he loved & missed me. Without blood relation but without explanation or attribution, they are my family. "My dad's side of the family."

Maybe it would not have been this way had my dad been alive. But who can say? The reality is that he is not - but they are. And I am so lucky to have them, both of his best friends & their entire family - my entire family.

So-called "family values" activists claim that children cannot grow up to be happy & healthy unless they have both parents. They say this in reference to same-sex headed families & to parents who divorce, but what message does that send to children like me, the product of single mothers who never intended to be sans husband? I buck at insinuations that children without fathers are doomed to lives of dysfunction & disorder, because I know better. I am both happy & healthy, both normal & responsible - all without a father. I know this is not the case of all children like me, or those of other fatherless circumstances, but as a result of my experiences, I truly believe that the kind of adults that fatherless children grow up to become is not based upon the title of those present in their lives but the love of those present. I may have grown up without a father, but thanks to his two best friends, I never grew up without the love & discipline I needed from father-like figures.

As I
once wrote in a column for my college newspaper (albeit about same-sex headed families, but the sentiment still stands), "Family is composed of the people who care for you the most, who look out for your best interests. That's why so many of us call family friends 'aunt' or 'uncle,' and why so many people don't differentiate between step-relatives and blood relatives. Your family members are the people who love you the most."

This Father's Day, I urge you to think beyond just your father, if you have one. Who are the men that have shaped your life? Don't forget to tell them you love them, too.

Happy Father's Day, Larry & Lanny. Thank you.

My Swine Flu Scare

OK, this title is sort of a lie. I don't think I have swine flu. Really. Even though it'd be great to have & survive swine flu & then join some sort of "I Survived Swine Flu 2009" group on Facebook, the truth is that I am sans swine flu, as far as I know, & that's just fine with me.

I am, however, currently fairly ill, although my level & type of illness are yet to be determined, as I slept for hours upon hours this afternoon but then felt OK enough to go to dinner with my grandma & three of my best friends this evening. Basically, I have a sore throat somethin' awful, so badly that I feel like a circus fire-eater on work-related disability. My grandma, who is not a particularly "grandmotherly" grandmother, made me a breakfast of fruit salad & a bagel this morning, which I promptly vomited up in a coughing fit (TMI? So sorry), then demanded that I stay home today rather than our venturing to Artomatic together. She also scored me cough drops & Dayquil, then later went back out for cough syrup, rendering her bff with the CVS pharmacist.

I learned today, though, that I've recently been exposed to someone who has Influenza A. And I know, you're all like, "There's a pandemic, who hasn't been?" but being sick with something else amidst a pandemic is sort of nerve-wracking. All day, I just kept thinking, "I'VE GOT IT," knowing that what I have is 99.9% likely not swine flu but worrying all the same. In a city where everyone's touching the same handrails & sitting on the same Metro seats, it sure does seem like a pandemic could spread mighty quickly. I think I've got something else, but still - who ever imagined I'd be thankful to have bronchitis/strep/the bubonic plague?

If I die, someone carry on this blog for me, will ya?
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