Next year I will turn 33. Later that year, my dad will have been dead for 11 years. I'll have been without him for one third of my life.
Right about the moment I wrote this sentence, 10 years ago, he took his last breath -- a pained, halting, agonizing sounding breath. (I wasn't in the room, but I know how cancer ends.) And just like that, Dad was gone. After a 3-year battle with cancer it wasn't a surprise -- yet it still shocked me. One minute he was alive, the next he wasn't. How do you make sense of that?
I've thought about this day for a long time. It's loomed large in my mind; a decade is a very, very long time for this mortal who's only lived three of them. Yet, although I have tears in my eyes as I write this, today is not a sad day. I am so blessed and lucky to have had my father for almost 23 years, to have him in our home and at my soccer games and in my face, to share his name and his history. 23 years isn't very long in a lot of ways, but in others it's a lifetime of moments and memories -- and fights and shouting and anger, lest I unjustly paint too rosy a picture. Dad was neither a perfect parent nor a perfect person, and thank goodness for that. I'm broken in some of the best ways thanks to him. I make my bed every day because of him.
He was full of advice and lessons, mostly good. Love Mom. Stay close to your brother and sisters. Go on vacation once a year. Yell at the TV during sports. Donate money to causes you believe in. Make dessert a priority. Make sure you have enough gas in the car when you pass the last gas station on a drive. Stand up for yourself. Plan your funeral beforehand. Let people help you. (He learned this lesson late in his life. I'm trying to learn it earlier.) Sometimes, when you're with someone who moves more slowly than you, you have to meet in the middle. If you get arrested, make sure you have someone else to bail you out of jail. Don't tell your daughter's boyfriend you don't like him; show it by ignoring him for the entire weekend he's come with her to visit.* Do your job well no matter how you feel about it. Finding a missing tarantula is more important than shaving both sides of your face. Bike to work. Learn your history. Help people. Blanket forts are OK. Leaving and not telling anyone where you're going is not. Stay warm. Stay out of trouble. Stay enthusiastic.
I think about him every day. Generally it's not a sad thought; I have a picture of the two of us on my graduation day on my desk at work. I see or hear something that reminds me of something he did. Occasionally someone will tell me I look like him or sound like him. A couple of weeks ago he came up while I was sitting in the doctor's office discussing my family history.
And yet, even when they are sad thoughts, I don't care. Crying or laughing, I love thinking about my father. I love talking about him. It keeps him alive. And it reminds me to be a better person, to be the person he saw when he was getting onto me for making choices that were less than they could be. Our relationship never came easily. I wouldn't change that.
Oh, and that 9:30 p.m. curfew? I was 17 and 10 months, it was not a school night, and I was going out with my boyfriend (who he knew and at least did not hate) and two friends, both of whom he knew and were younger than me and had a much later curfew. My curfew was usually midnight. When I confronted him later, he said he stood by that decision. So if you're wondering where I sometimes get my freak decision-making that doesn't make any sense skills, well, I come by it honestly.
* I'm not sure I ever thanked my father for ignoring that particular boyfriend. I wonder sometimes, had my family been more polite and less overt in their dislike of him, if I would have gone ahead and married the kid like I thought I wanted to for half an hour more than a decade ago when I was young enough to think I had life figured out. Fortunately, Dad isn't subtle, nor, apparently, did he need a weapon for boyfriend intimidation. Props.