That’s how long it’s been since the last time I saw my father.
I was standing before his casket in a cold funeral home. An American flag draped across the casket’s cold metal surface. A red, white and blue flower arrangement stood off to the side. Right in front of me was a man I didn’t even recognize. His wrinkled skin. Gray, thinning hair. He looked…grandfatherly. But he was a person I barely even knew as a father.
When my dad died, planning his funeral fell squarely on the shoulders of myself and my brothers. We made the arrangements. Sorted through his belongings. I picked the casket. Dropped off the suit at the funeral home.
I dedicated nearly two weeks of my time, energy and sanity to planning a service for someone I hadn’t received so much as a phone call from in more than a decade.
My relationship with my dad wasn’t complicated. It was actually quite simple: There wasn’t one. He popped in and out of my life when I was young. I remember sporadic visits. Occasional gifts or birthday cards. Phone calls.
Then one day there was just…nothing.
The result was that my heart turned cold toward him. I started referring to him by first name. I resented him and regretted the fact that this was the person chosen to be my dad. And the impact of growing up without a father has revealed itself in my many ways throughout my life.
And research shows that a girl’s relationship with her father can affect her relationships into adulthood – particularly when it comes to who she chooses for a romantic partner. A father shapes her conscious and unconscious perceptions of what she can expect and what is acceptable in a relationship.
There was no model for me. And looking back on my early romantic life, I see a series of mistakes. I only got it right once I learned through experience. I know that having a dad doesn’t guarantee that your first boyfriend will be the love of your life, but it would have been nice to have some guidance.
There were no daddy-daughter dances. No tough guy act when I went on my first date. No hero for me to look up to. No dad to give me away on my wedding day.
I watched other daughters interact with their fathers. Their expressions of affection seemed odd or foreign to me because it was something I’d never experienced.
Meanwhile, I was sentenced to a life of envy, watching girls who had the love of their father. Wondering how it felt and spending my life coming to terms with the fact that I would probably never experience it.
I often worried about something happening to my mom. Where would I go? Who would raise me?
I also experienced an increased need for approval coupled with building an almost impenetrable wall around my heart. After all, if I wasn’t worthy of the love of someone who was supposed to love me unconditionally, how could I feel worthy to be loved by anyone else?
Not all the effects of not having a dad around were negative. My mom did the best she could to take on both roles. I credit my single-parent upbringing with my independence, strength and perseverance.
I learned the importance of being able to do things on your own. I learned that anything is possible. Sometimes I’m almost independent to a fault, and it makes it hard to be vulnerable or relinquish control.
An Act of Forgiveness
Despite all of this, I still grieved when my father died. I feel like I was mourning what would never be more than I was mourning the actual loss of him.
I also experienced anger because I felt like he owed me an explanation for living less than an hour away and never reaching out to me. Why he had never tried to meet my children so they could know their grandfather.
At his funeral family and friends got up and told stories about him. Funny stories. Sweet stories. Through the words of others, I learned a little more about the smart, yet flawed man my dad was. A man who may have been somewhat incapable of being the father I needed.
Soon after his passing, I realized I needed to forgive him. Not for him, but for me. It was then that I was able to mourn him as someone who was a part of me.
I carried a pendant bearing his picture on my bouquet on my wedding day. I display his burial flag in my living room. Remember him fondly on important days. And I’ve taken my daughters to visit his grave site.
That’s how long it’s been since the last time I saw my father. And although the his absence has had a ripple effect throughout my life, I try to focus on the few good memories I do have of him.
The birthday cards. The phone calls. The sporadic visits.
Fathers, please be there for your daughters because we need you.