The Presence of Absence: A Note On Father’s Day

I was nineteen the last time I celebrated Father’s Day, probably with a card and maybe some small gift; a hug and a kiss. If I let myself, I can muster the faint, shower-fresh smell in the crisscrossing creases and lines of his neck and almost remember what it feels like to be squeezed back by his dad arms; his voice saying “thanks honey,” and his picky cheek against mine for a second. I had no idea how young I was at nineteen until he died and I found my years to come suddenly laid out before me without him in them. I realized just how little time nineteen years is. I would describe our relationship at that time as the closest we could have ever been. We had a bond so strong that eleven years later, we still spend my dreams hugging and crying. My recovery from his death was long and slow, and probably made more difficult by my natural pull towards depression. For the first year, which I don’t remember much of, I used drugs and food to get through every day. I left my job where I worked with him, in a place that became thick with his memory and painfully empty with his absence. I learned that absence can actually be an addition to one’s life, a presence, rather than a simple subtraction. I learned that I really had no concept of the space a person in your life takes up until that space becomes vacant—an empty chair at the head of the table, a missing parent in family pictures, a missing hug at a graduation.

I don’t think anyone imagined that he would be a dad that would miss the bigger halves of his kid’s lives. He was cut from the cloth for celebrating graduations and birthdays, holidays and grandkids; to play the best friend and the silly uncle, the fair boss and the friendly neighbour. He was resilient and kind, ethical and funny. He was a nice guy. He was a good guy.

When I think about him now, on the eve of my university graduation, eleven years older than I was when we last spoke, I wonder what our relationship would be like. I wonder how it would have stood up to my years, my changes, my convictions. I ask myself, how would he have reacted when I told him I was dating a woman? How would he have reacted five years later when I told him I was dating a man? How would our political conversations have unfolded as I grew to embrace and embody some of my deepest political positions? How would he have felt when I told him that having kids isn’t something I see in my future at this point, that marriage isn’t something I want for myself? And then I wonder if I would even be this same person if he hadn’t died. And I wonder if the fact that I like who I am today, with all of the experiences that led me here, means something bad.

I pretty much ignore Father’s Day now. I don’t even like to acknowledge anyone else’s dad, even though I have known a couple over the years who deserve it. I don’t do anything commemorative or in the spirit of memorial, these things are saved for his birthday (a carrot cake, a bottle of Blue, some particular music, a worn out denim shirt). And truthfully, as the years come and go, and as the pain lessens, I’ve let myself off the hook a little when it comes to thinking of special ways to remember him on his birthday. After all, I remember him all the time, at every celebration and milestone he misses, in the wake of every achievement and joyous life event, every time I write my parents an email with news or asking for much needed parental guidance. I’ve learned that, contrary to my greatest fear upon his death, there is simply no forgetting. Not even of the willful sort.

I won’t visit his headstone on Sunday; he’s never really been there anyway. It’s nothing but a shiny rock in a fenced in area full of remains of people I’ve never met. The only place I’ve ever truly felt his presence—truly known his presence—is my dreams. Of course, I have no way of knowing when he’ll show up, and so far, no way of summoning him to any particular slumber, but I’ve been gifted with vivid dreams, full of colours and smells and sensations. Our dream meetings are as real as life itself. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

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