Ben Werner shares the loss of his father and the absence that has left as Werner navigates being a new father himself.
“Daddy, you don’t have a daddy,” my 3-year-old recently observed.
“I do, he’s just not here anymore,” I said, hoping to avoid a more detailed circle of life discussion.
18 years have passed since my father died, following a remarkably brief but painful fight with cancer. Since 1998, holidays have been celebrated with the sense someone was missing. Other happy events—my wedding, my sister’s wedding, the birth of my children—included a tinge of sadness.
Father’s Day, though, became a non-day, something I avoided thinking about; something other people celebrated. I didn’t bother looking for cards or typical dad gifts—the gear from his favorite teams such as University of Maryland, New York Knicks, or New York Yankees—until four years ago.
My very pregnant-at-the-time wife and I somewhat randomly attended a Washington Nationals game on Father’s Day. This was the last game we were slated to attend until after our first son was born. My sister was busy that day and the other friends we shared season tickets with were occupied with Father’s Day celebrations, leaving the tickets to us. At the game, my wife suggested I get a Nationals hoodie—a mild extravagance, but a great Father-to-be’s Day gift.
And so started my experience reentering what’s still an uneasy celebration of Father’s Day. I’m never sure what to say I want or what I should do. Sure, we’ve hosted family cookouts and I’ve since collected a Nationals jersey, a Nationals polo, a fountain pen, and, my favorite of all, a necktie shaped piece of construction paper attached to yarn and colored by my oldest son. But it’s always an incomplete celebration.
What I want is to feel my dad’s hand holding mine. To groan again after he made some silly pun. To experience the competitiveness which only grows from spending countless hours shooting hoops one-on-one with him in our driveway. I still picture him grilling burgers and Hebrew Nationals on Father’s Day, but can’t really hear his voice or feel his touch anymore.
By now, 18 years later, the sensations have faded away. Significant, because now is also when my kids started asking about their grandfather. See, the number 18 holds great meaning in Judaism. The same Hebrew characters used for the numeral 18 also spell the word “life.”
My dad isn’t physically here anymore, but increasingly he’s with us. When my sons ask about him—what he did, what he liked—I tell about his love of trains and basketball. I smile when they both say, “I like basketball and trains.”
I smile because I know each time I tell my kids a story about their grandfather, new life is breathed into the memory of the dad and granddad who would’ve loved spending Father’s Day grilling and shooting hoops with us.