My dad is the reason I am a well-adjusted, grateful, loving and happy person today. I have no doubt about it. Sure, I have my down days. There are days when the developments in our world deeply upset me. I truly wonder at the human race. There are several occasions when I miss my mother who died when I was only eleven years old. I feel angry and ripped off and lonely for her and for the person she would be today. I crave the companionship of my mother when I have questions only she could answer, or when I see a mother and daughter out to lunch or sharing a dressing room in a boutique that I know Mam would have enjoyed. I miss Mam often throughout my days. It’s a given. I loved and I lost. But I have to say that I feel truly, unimaginably blessed to have the father I have. Who would I have become without his love and guidance down through the years? I don’t know. I don’t wish to know.
My mother chose well when she chose Dad. She married in her mid-thirties having waited until she was sure she had found the right man. She had. My dad is a gem and she knew that. I wish I could ask her to share with me that story. I want to know when exactly she knew that dad was the one for her. There are things I really want to know the answer to but these answers were hers only and they died along with her in 1988. As a child I never thought to ask these things. How would I? The American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, says in her poem of the same title “Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.”
Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.
Last year, shortly after I started writing about mother loss, I received a thoughtful, courteous message from a man who had read my piece “3 Things I’ve Learned Since Losing My Mother” in Huffington Post. He told me that his wife had died and that he was now raising their young children alone. He appreciated my article and wondered if I could tell him some of the most important things Dad had done to help during my moments of grief. He said he wanted to be that kind of father for his own children. I wrote back to him immediately.
When I hear from fathers looking for guidance in how to raise their motherless little ones I feel three things. One, my heart aches because out there is another father struggling to get through life without his beloved wife. And other heartbroken children are commencing a new and challenging chapter of their lives without their mommas. The second thing these messages do for me is give me hope. These men want to do their very best for their children. They are not afraid to reach out for support and to ask for help. They love their daughters and sons and they want to do right by them. And, thirdly, I feel blessed that I can offer some advice to these fathers based on the experience I was fortunate enough to have in my own life.
“The degree to which a surviving parent copes is the most important indicator of the child’s long-term adaptation. Kids whose surviving parents are unable to function effectively in the parenting role show more anxiety and depression, as well as sleep and health problems, than those whose parents have a strong support network and solid inner resources to rely on.”
Dad had no guide book, no therapist and no Google but he followed his heart and helped my brother and me in the best ways he could. He prepared us for Mam’s death by speaking to us about the seriousness of her illness once it became clear to him and to the doctors that Mam could not survive much longer. He let us know that he was going to be there for us, then and into the future and that we wouldn’t be alone. He was true to his word. He was always there for us.
Dad offered guidance when necessary and listened to our stories, our hopes and our worries without judgment. Dad allowed us to grow into ourselves without criticism or fuss. He collected me from late night discos when I requested, never complaining about the hours he had to stay up. He didn’t ask too many questions and I always felt able to tell him anything. He patiently taught my brother and I how to drive and generously loaned us his car. He trusted us. I died my hair pink, green and bright red while I was in college, before it was a thing, and Dad just smiled. He welcomed my friends into our home and never complained about the loud music blasting from my room. I truly felt my dad embrace me for who I was as I grew into my womanhood and in return for his trust we gave him no reason to worry.
Of great importance to us was keeping Mam’s presence alive in our home. We kept plenty of Mam’s things around and I was free to use any of her stuff as I wanted. I wore some of her clothes as I grew into them, used her comb, dabbed her perfume on my arm and took one of her rings as my own. There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t worn it. Dad welcomed questions about Mam and did his best to answer them. He brought her name into conversations and shared memories of her from time to time. Memories of Mam surrounded us in a healthy way, and still do. Photos of her were kept in their frames and cards from her were stored as treasured keepsakes. Dad supported my writing of “A Lovely Woman”, the memoir I penned about losing Mam. He asks from time to time how the search for an agent is going and I know I have his blessing every step of this journey.
I am one of the fortunate ones. Not because I lost my dear mother way too early in my life, but because I was blessed with a caring and kind father who gave so much of his heart and his life to raising us children in a supportive and loving home following such a huge loss. Many, many motherless daughters and sons live a very different story to mine. Many have their family lives ripped apart because a father cannot cope emotionally. Some abuse their children. Often times fathers flee the scene and the child no longer has a secure and loving life that was once theirs. I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories that I know this happens frequently.
There are other ways, different to my family’s experience, to find happiness in the wake of mother loss. Although generally extremely difficult for children whose fathers remarry, depending on the age of the child, children do grow up to adore their new step-mother or at least to accept them. Many find a new love and happiness in this extension of family while some experience the pain of replacement. I’m sure we all know some wonderful, devoted step-mothers who love bereaved children as their own. It is important for grieving fathers to find their happiness again too. It is a complicated affair.
I am blessed to still have my dad in my life. We don’t see each other as often as I’d like due to distance but he is always at the end of the phone line and when possible we spend quality time together. Recently I asked him about the immediate impact of losing Mam. He said he felt lost at the start and wondered how he would manage. He admitted to feeling his way day by day as time went on. Following Mam’s death he says he was exhausted but that having us, my brother and me, was a great help to him. He concentrated on our needs and we were companions for him. Helping us, he said, helped him.
As Father’s Day approaches this coming weekend I want to acknowledge the love and devotion my father gave to me and emphasize the significant role that fathers play in the life of a motherless daughter or son. I learned to thrive and grow into the considerate, assertive, loving person I am today because of what I went through and how my father guided me in those years when Mam was sick and following her death. Dad’s love and support is invaluable while the rewards for both parent and child are boundless. My heart overflows with love for my dad and when we have an opportunity to spend time together every moment is treasured. Losing my mother at such an early age resulted in a constant anxiety about losing my father. That is practically a given when a child loses a parent. But it has also given me reason to appreciate the moments. I got married last September and my father was there to walk me up the aisle. For both of us this was a moment. I choked back my happy tears when those doors opened to a room full of smiles and Etta James sang “At Last.” This day was a blessing, in more ways than one.
Love heals us. Love is the answer. Love is the way through the pain and into the light.
I am sorry for those who have lost their fathers. And I am sorry for those who never knew theirs or have suffered pain at the hands of their fathers. There is too much pain in this world and sometimes I wonder how we get through this life at all. Perhaps, again, the answer is love. Finding love where we can. Seeking out those with a loving heart. Healing each other. Sharing our pain and learning from other people’s stories. Listening. Sending an abundance of love into this fragile world.
I conclude by wishing my kind, sweet dad a happy Father’s Day, and to all the dads out there doing their best for their children, I wish the same! Your presence in your child’s life is significant. You are valued. Let your children see that they are valued too.