Fatherless Child

Daddy in Hawaii, mid-eighties.

To state the obvious, Father’s Day is the day when children everywhere fete their fathers with gifts and cards. They serve them stacks of obligatory pancakes and cups of badly brewed coffee. They draw pictures and sign their cards with love.

It is a day to honor fathers, and I am OK with that. Still, it probably is not associated with loss for most people.

For those of us whose fathers have either recently (or even distantly) disappeared or died the commercialization of the holiday can be, frankly, a total pain in the ass. Who wants to open their email each day to find dozens of gift ideas for someone who is dead?

It reminds me of the experience of receiving credit card bills and other mail for my father for a year or so after he died. I sometimes had to send a death certificate out to the sender. Sometimes, just a note saying ‘Deceased.’

In any case, it was always a grim and jolting reminder: You are fatherless. Your father is gone, gone, gone.

That is not to say that when my Dad was alive I did not celebrate Father’s Day. I did.

In fact, the last time I sent him a Father’s Day card was 2002. He was dead before the holiday rolled around again. I found the last card I sent him from LA with the rest of his things when I packed them up after his death.

Daddy Dear.

So, what do the fatherless among us do on a day where everything is about dad?

How I would love to tell you…

For me, I think about all the things I would tell my dad if he was still here.

He has missed a decade of my life; in some ways, he has missed the best decade of my life. I became a teacher the year he died. I have published poetry and essays since his death. It would have tickled him to see my name in print. The first poems I ever published (in 1977) he photocopied and passed out to dozens of his friends.

After he died, several of his closest allies reported on how proud he was of me. Part of me wished he’d said something. However, the fact of the matter is, I knew how he felt.

During this last decade, I moved to Arizona and built a life. I fell in and out of love. I lost two cats and adopted several others. I got a dog and planted a vegetable garden. I won teaching awards, and most recently, an ethics teaching fellowship. I  deepened my relationship with my mom and developed new friends. I cleaned up my finances and saved for retirement.

There are so many things that I would like him to know about the woman I am; so many rifts in our family that we are finally ironing out. So many of the small victories and plans and ideas I would have liked to share.

After Death

A few weeks before I moved to Arizona in 2004, I had an appointment with an energy healer (whom I have worked with ever since). As she worked on me the first time, she ran energy into my body and chatted amiably about how I looked and what she was seeing as she worked.

“Your father’s here,” she said in passing.

“Really? What’s he look like?”

“He’s wearing a cowboy hat. He seems to be chewing on a piece of green wheat or grass.”

She proceeded to give me a message from him. Tears slipped down the sides of my face and grief lifted off me as she spoke.

She told me he was proud of me and he missed me. She said he couldn’t wait until we saw each other again.

“But, there’s no hurry. Time’s different there. He doesn’t want to see you too soon. Just when the time’s right.”

The image I have of him from that day matches a photograph my granddaddy took in early 1961: Daddy in a cowboy hat, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. I wore a red romper, smiling widely, a thatch of hair and only a few baby teeth coming in. Daddy held both of my hands and helped me stand. I was about one-year-old. We were visiting some wild-west town or other remote spot in the desert.

The point is, he was there. He was there, lifting me up, pushing me out into life.


My dad was damaged and distant. He was often gone when I was kid. He tended to be a peripheral figure, whereas my mom was at the center of things. Some of that had to do with his history, and some with the era in which he grew up. Men were supposed to support their families financially. They were stoic; they lived behind the scenes; they were mysterious.

I often felt like Daddy spent my whole childhood out for a drive. For some inexplicable reason, he didn’t want to be with us. He preferred the company of his friends and colleagues.

I realize now that he didn’t know how to be with us. I guess I prefer to think of him as broken, rather than distant or disinterested.

He didn’t know how to be a father.

Largely, it wasn’t his fault. He was adrift at time when a man’s identity was shifting with the upheaval of the women’s movement and the anti-war movement. Raised to be a traditional, hands-off father, he was at a loss as to how to be otherwise.

What I miss.

I miss his callused hands and the way he said my name. I miss the language he used: the slang from the forties and fifties like hot-diggity-dog and lickedy-split. I miss the way he looked at me at the end of his life: with pride, sadness, regret and love.

I miss the way that he believed in me; wholeheartedly, with nothing held back.

He did the best he could. As I get older, I become more aware that that is all we can hope for in terms of the people we love. Each day, we strive to do our best, to bring our best selves to the table.

Sometimes, we succeed. Often we do not.

But, we continue to try anyway.

© 2013  Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved

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