A man walked by me in Safeway wearing Old Spice the other day. The smallest things are reminding me… Father’s Day is here again.
Last Thursday, I stood in the Hallmark store at the mall, searching out two Father’s Day cards – one being for my husband. My girls aren’t ready to give him one yet – I don’t know when or if they ever will, but I think some will, someday. Some probably won’t, but some will. He isn’t their father of course, so they don’t even think of it yet – a card. How could they? Why should they? That card will come, if it comes, from a life lesson that can only be learned looking back – the one that teaches us that, while our “father” in biological terms may have singular distinction, the men who love us and ultimately raise us are the men who go out the door to work each day to provide for us, who come home tired and worn and still find time and energy to play a game or take a walk with us. The men who raise us are the ones who sacrifice for us – they choose us when they must choose, often over themselves. They worry about us when we stay out too late at night. They hear us cry and they silently wish they could do more… They inspire our dreams, they give us confidence, and they stand by us when no one else can or will. Because they love us. Whether we embrace or reject them, tolerate or torment them, love or hate them – they stand fast. These men – whether biological, adopted, grand-, step- or something else entirely – these men keep us in their hearts every moment of every day. We are lucky if we have even one man such as that in our lives growing up. If we have more… (I had more…) oh, we are so blessed. Because these men are the ones who guide us toward who we will become.
The man who raised me – the man who kept me in his heart every moment of every day…my Dad… was not my biological father, but he was the only father I ever knew. I have a bio-father, still living. He is an architect and lives a few hours south of me, but I have never met him. I’ve seen his picture on Facebook – I’ll admit it: I was curious – and there learned that he and I share, if anything, a great love of horses and the outdoors. (But really, what girl growing up in the PNW doesn’t? It’s hardly ascribable to genetics.) Nevertheless, I can probably thank him for the delay in the graying of my hair – at 50 I still only have a few random grays around the edges, while my bio-mom and sister have been “red heads” for some years now. I’ve also seen pictures of his children – I have a half-brother and -sister who likely do not even know I exist. His son looks something like me. His daughter’s name is Camille (I have always liked that name). My bio-father knows about me and has seen pictures of me grown and with my daughters. He told my mom he thought I was pretty when she showed the pictures to him. She made a special trip to see him just after she and I reunited some years ago. I’ve even written him once or twice, but he has never replied. I don’t know how I feel about that, or him, but I do know that I don’t need to send him a Father’s Day card.
I’m losing my way… back to Hallmark… so I’m standing in the aisle at Hallmark, looking for cards and trying to avoid the pushy woman in the bright apricot pants who seems to have to take up the entire aisle, shielding great expanses of the card rack like an NBA point guard. So, there I am maneuvering around her and picking up this sappy card and that one, reading every sticky-sweet line, trying to find just the right one for my kind, sentimental husband and trying not to think about my own Dad. I’m fine. No tears – I’m fine. Really. Then, down the way, past the apricot pant lady and her very large suspendered companion, I see a young woman dressed in blue cotton, leaning into her husband (I assume, based on their conversation) to show him a card she has found.
“Oh, it’s perfect! That’s Dad! That’s absolutely Dad!” She runs her finger down the words on the front, encouraging him to read it, then opens it up with a flourish. “Don’t you think that says Dad all over?” She is excited – giddy. Her husband reaches around her and pulls her close. He smiles and nods and they laugh quietly together. “Perfect,” she says again, “just perfect.” Her tapered fingers reach for a tan envelope and then she links his arm and they both turn toward the counter. As they whisk away, I can’t help myself: I have to see – what is so perfect? What is her Dad all over?
I pick up a card from the same slot and before I can even get it open, I feel my cheeks warm and my eyes begin to well. Snoopy. It’s Snoopy. Snoopy dancing – with his head thrown back and feet flying. It could have been any one of a billion other cards that Hallmark makes this time of year for Father’s Day, but it is Snoopy. My dad loved Snoopy – just loved him. Honestly, I think he had more of an affinity for Charlie Brown – he related. But he loved Snoopy. And now I can’t read the words – they look like they are at the bottom of a swimming pool. I will never know what the blue cotton woman’s dad is all over.
So there I am, crying all by myself in Hallmark, trying to pretend that I’m not. I make my way down the aisle, away from the popular cards. Sniff. A little woman who barely comes up to my chest (I’m 5’3”) passes by and looks up with concern. “Sorry – allergies,” I say, and wipe my nose as I put on my best allergy face and try to look very interested in the “Happy Bar Mitzvah” card that my hand has fallen on.
Stupid dancing dog. Stupid card.
Father’s Day isn’t simple for me. It should be, but it isn’t. This is my seventh Father’s Day since my Dad died, and it is the first one for which I didn’t buy him a card. I know how crazy that sounds, by the way: I have six cards tucked away, signed and sealed up for my Dad who will never see them. But this year, I didn’t buy him a card. I didn’t even look for one – I no longer need the ritual. My grief, while still tender, has been softened with time and with the great peace and boundless happiness my life now brings me. So instead, this year I am buying a second card for another man, to give together with my husband – for a man who has captured my heart in a way I never expected… my father-in-law. Pop.
Pop has been married to my husband’s mom for 22 years now, and her kids, as far as he is concerned, are his too. He loves every one like a great treasure, and tells us all often what it means to him to be surrounded by a family that loves him. I don’t know all that Pop has been through in his life, but my guess is that his soft, gentle soul is the result of long years of wear on some formerly rough edges. I think perhaps Pop has learned the hard way how precious family is, and how “family” is something we make, not something destined because of biology or designed by law or social mandate; but rather formed and forged through health and sickness, struggle and success, acceptance and understanding, time and unconditional love.
I will never forget the moment I realized how much I love him. Last spring, on the day that I married my husband, Pop came up to me and put his arms around me, hugged me tight and said, “Now you’re my daughter. I don’t call you my daughter-in-law because that’s not how I think of you. You’re my daughter.” He meant it. I could tell he had been waiting some time to say it and could feel to my bones how deeply he meant it. And just like that, right there in the middle of the reception hall floor at my own wedding, I fell in love with him.
Pop is patient, hard-working, and kind to a fault. He loves a cold beer and good joke and he can be a little stubborn sometimes (some might say “more than a little”), but he is completely and passionately devoted to the people he loves. He loves a good country band too, and at 83, he can still out-dance most of the young people on the dance floor. Sometimes he even finds it in his heart to lead me in a two-step; when the dance is over he always smiles his widest grin and patiently tells me that I’m coming along… that I’ll get it sooner or later. If I don’t accomplish anything else this year, I want to learn to two-step well enough to make Pop proud.
So the second card is for him – for Pop. Not my bio-father, not the man who raised me or even one of the men who had any part in who I grew to become – but nevertheless a man who keeps me in his heart every day now, as I keep him in mine. The card I chose for my husband and I to give to him isn’t fancy or sophisticated; simply stated, it reads:
We want to say
how much you’re appreciated
for your love and caring,
for everything you do
for a family who loves you
It is Pop, all over.