So, the thing is... I miss my dad. 

My dad would have turned sixty-seven on April 5th.  He died in 1989, almost nineteen years after being electrocuted in a freak accident in Vietnam.  He suffered extreme brain damage in the accident and spent most of those years in nursing homes.  He could recognize us and he could laugh but he couldn't walk, talk or eat by himself.  We're not really sure how much he understood of what we told him.  

I don't have very many memories of my dad before the accident but the ones I have make me feel like he was a wonderful person.  I remember him picking me up out of bed and carrying me to a neighbor's house to watch their television so that I could see the men walk on the moon --he didn't want me to miss history being made.  I remember sitting next to him at the top of a flight of stairs while he patiently tried to teach me to tie my shoes.  I can still see him sitting in those strange wicker chairs of my mom's, whistling to the bobwhites and hearing them call back to him. I remember the Christmas he made a whole STORE for me, complete with counters and shelves and scales and a cash register.  He wrote me letters from Vietnam.  I still have them. 

I used to say I had a handprint of my dad's somewhere on my rear end but my mother says he completely doted on me and never laid a disciplinary hand on me, ever. (Being the baby gets you SOME privileges.)  But he was a strong parental figure to all of us --a very participatory parent, which was unusual for men in those days.  I miss him.  I was only five when it happened and two of those years he spent in Vietnam on tours of duty. I used to pull down the covers of his bed to look for him.  I guess I missed him then, too. 

It's hard to make sense of what happened to my dad.  My mom did an amazing job holding our family together and going back to school to get her PH.D.  She visited my dad at least weekly and she was pretty active in trying to get some sort of nursing home reform passed.  (Nursing homes in Texas are grim places.)  And in 1981, when I was sixteen, she gave me the best present ever --the man I casually call my father, who has been part of our family now for twenty years and who is one of the most refined, sensitive, loving and kind people I have ever known.  But I know that I can say this and he will understand: I still miss my dad. 

When my dad died, it was a very weird feeling.  My entire family traveled to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia for the military burial in the place where we bury our heroes. On one hand, I was relieved that he, who would have hated the inactivity of his life in the nursing home, was finally free of that kind of life.  But he was still my daddy, when all is said and done, and there was grief there.  Loads of grief for the waste --of war, of a manís life, and for the irreparable altering of my childhood.  I feel like I missed knowing this very rare person and I missed knowing first-hand that special bond between daughters and dads. 

I think about this when I watch my husband with his daughters.  My husband, too, is a person with a sense of history.  He once pulled me out onto the roof of my house so I could see a total lunar eclipse.  He videotapes shuttle launchings for Ana and he bought both of our girls a set of new coins made to commemorate the new Millennium.  (We laughed at ourselves for that one but I bet they appreciate the gesture.)  He has endless patience and manages to turn small moments, like the time we caught a garter snake in our pool, into opportunities for teaching our children.  I watch him with his daughters and it goes a long way to heal the empty place I have from missing my dad.  But I still miss him. 

I am grateful for the relationship between my husband and his daughters and I have tried really hard to get out of their way.  It's such a different relationship than the one I have with my girls and it's just beautiful to watch.  It's hard not to interfere sometimes, hard not to see my husband as some kind of B String parent since I get to spend so much more time with them.  But I believe that part of my job as a mom is not only to model what a good spousal relationship looks like, it's also to get out of the way of the relationship my girls have with their father.  It's not always easy.  When Ana was first born, I had to remove myself physically from the room in order not to keep showing my husband the "right way" to hold her, diaper her, feed her, clothe her, etc.  As if my way was the only right way.  

It is shocking to me when I read or see parents who have no contact with their children out of choice.  Especially fathers, I guess.  Not just the deadbeat dads, but also the ones who live right in the same house with their children and think of parenting as something a mom does.  Gosh, they miss so much!  And it's unspeakably sad to me that they are choosing to not develop a relationship with their kids when there are lots of people, like me, who would do anything to have had that chance with our own fathers.  Fatherhood provides a unique opportunity to become a better person by investing something of yourself in your offspring.  But it takes a special person to recognize that opportunity and become a real dad.  

I know because I had one.  And I miss him.

 

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(c) Barbara Cooper 2001

Barbara Cooper is the mother of Ana (3) and Jane (five months).  She lives in Austin, Texas.