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The Surprising Comfort of an Unsent Father's Day Card

How I carry love in the face of grief.

Source: Mybona/Shutterstock

The card's edges are tattered and cracked, its corners bent. The once-white border that frames the cover smudged and grey. The glossy finish dulled. The companion envelope long gone. Never needed anyway.

In black and white, the front photo is simple. A man's legs, denim-clad, cut off just below the hip, bent slightly at the knee. He's standing on a hardwood floor in an open room. A kitchen, maybe? A wall's corner with an ornate wood baseboard is visible behind him, but the rest of the background is blurred, so it's hard to tell.

The space is not the intended focus. What's sharply captured by the photographer's lens is the little girl balancing atop the man's leather loafers, her tiny toes gripping their surface, one bare heel hanging off the end. She, too, wears jeans rolled at the cuffs, their seams and back pocket stitched with embroidered smocking. A light, handknit sweater covers her small torso, and her rounded toddler belly leans in toward the man's legs. The curve of her tilted chin and her soft, blond curls brushing her shoulder as her arm stretches upward are the only defining features visible in the shot's frame. There's a clear sense of movement, despite it being a still photo, as though the camera's shutter clicked and captured the two mid-step in this sweet dance.

Inside, in a font that mimics looping, handwritten script, is a short, printed message: Ever since I can remember, Dad, I remember loving you. Happy Father's Day.

Even now, though I've opened this card and read this sentiment thousands of times, the words carve through me, and an aching sadness settles in their path. I miss my dad.

He died when I was 23, and he's been dead for 25 years, so the quick math tells me I've commemorated two more Father's Days in the Dad-shaped gulf of his absence than I had in his actual presence. And still, this card I bought 10 years ago—15 years into life without him—has, ever since, been tucked into the front pocket of the worn, plaid schoolbag I carry everywhere I go. I've left it each time I've cleaned out that bag, discarding broken pencils and crumpled papers, used-up lip balms, spare change, and old sticks of gum with lint stuck to their peeling wrappers. It travels with me to the various places I teach and write: university classrooms, weekend workshops, conferences, and coffee shops. Whenever I reach for a pen, my fingers brush its cardboard surface, and I am reassured that it's still there.

It was an impulsive purchase. I'd been in Barnes & Noble, standing in front of the seasonal display of dad-centric greetings, looking for a card for Chris. Though it is never hard to celebrate my husband for the devoted father he is to our son and daughter, there's a tricky convergence of conflicting emotions that knot into this "holiday." Living most of the time below the surface, the grief of all that was lost in the story of my father's too-soon departure when he suffered a heart attack at 42, and then a prolonged and complicated illness, inevitably presses a little closer.

I felt its push that day when I picked up this card and read its message. But I felt something else, too. A yearning to live a different story for a while. One where my dad wasn't dead, and I wasn't sad, and it wasn't out of the ordinary for me—a daughter with memories of sweet moments like the one captured in the black and white photo on that card's cover—to buy it for her dad. And so, I did.

I brought it to the cash register, smiled as the clerk rang it up and accepted my money, and carried it, wrapped in brown paper, to my car. When I settled in the driver's seat and opened the package, a whisper of embarrassment brushed against my skin. It's only a story, I told myself then and slipped the card into my schoolbag, where it remains.

It's silly, logic chides me regularly, to hold onto this 5X7 piece of cardstock that carries no actual memory of my father. Different than the other keepsakes I claimed in the days after the funeral when my mother requested our help to begin the difficult task of sorting through his things. Like the fuzzy, blue-fleece, half-zip jacket I still pull on sometimes, hugging it close along with the pain of picturing Dad in those final months of deterioration, wearing it almost daily when warmth and comfort were all he wanted as his diseased body grew shrunken and weak. Or the rag wool socks nestled at the back of my dresser drawer that remind me of the surprise Thanksgiving weekend visit I made to my parents' home in Nova Scotia from where Chris and I had begun our new life in Baltimore. As one of our last meaningful interactions when his sharp mind was still fully present, Dad had tossed me the L.L. Bean catalog and asked me to order close to a dozen pairs—gifts from him for my siblings and mother—"Because," he'd said softly, "They're really cozy, and I think everybody could use a little coziness this holiday." He died three weeks later, 12 days before Christmas.

And yet, my baffling emotional attachment to this unused card in my bag is unlike anything I feel for these other cherished mementos. I carry it with me like a talisman. In those moments when an anxious restlessness creeps in, throwing me off balance, I soothe my fingers along its edge, trying to replace that feeling with grounding and calm.

I recognize now that when I plucked it from the shelf a few days before that dreaded third Sunday in June that should be just another day, but, for the fatherless, never really is, I was searching for something similar. A reminder, maybe, that no matter how unstable the circumstances of our lives became, there was a time when that idyllic father-daughter dance was real.

Nadya Eugene/Shutterstock
Source: Nadya Eugene/Shutterstock

My father was my mooring. A shifting medley of early memories, hazy with time, order and reorder in my mind and shape the contours of who he was to me. Like how, when I still had my baby teeth, he'd take the starter bite of my apple to break the skin. Or be ready to lick around my ice cream cone to stop the drips when it was melting too fast for me to keep up with. When my feet still dangled far above the floor, he'd snuggle me close on the piano bench and let me rest my hands on top of his while he played. The way he'd twiddle his thumbs when the church sermon ran to long to show me I wasn't the only one who was bored. How on Valentine's Day, he'd buy two roses—one for Mom and one for me. And on Christmas morning, he'd make a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice just for me.

He was my first teacher and intrepid guide. The lure of open water, my love of rugged spaces, and the solace I find in fresh air or a walk among trees come from him. No matter how far away life took me as I ventured into independence, the little girl me was firmly planted on his feet, holding fast to his legs and letting him lead. When he died, she came untethered, and even though I've tied on to new supports in my adult life—my beloved husband and children most of all—that little girl is always searching for her footing on solid ground. Twenty-five years stretch between his death and now, but when problems need solving or doubts need squashing or spirits need lifting, I long for Dad's advice, his encouragement, his dry, irreverent humor and the contagious warmth of his smile.

Perhaps this card, a thing I can touch and hold, with a sentiment that resonates still in the present moment— Ever since I can remember, Dad, I remember loving you—is what helps me to find them. To get back to those places in my memory where those comforting pieces of my father endure. Where he lives larger than life, and his quiet strength is everything that little girl needs to feel safe.

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