My dad died last August, so this is the first Father’s Day I did not worry about buying the perfect card and getting it in the mail so it would arrive on time.
My father didn’t like the kind of card that a journalist daughter with an acerbic writing style might consider amusing — one with an inscription such as, “Sure, you voted for Nixon and Reagan, but you’re still a great dad.” He didn’t even like corny Hallmark humor. He liked schmaltz. Once I realized that, I went all out.
“Thank you for your beautiful card,” he would say when I called on Father’s Day morning — as if I had personally written the sappy verse inside.
Because of distance and holiday-inflated drive time between Boston and New York, where he lived, we were rarely together on the actual holiday. Since his death, I realize time and distance had factored into our relationship in different ways.
There were those many years when he drove to Boston, first to take me to college, then to work on home renovation projects or baby-sit. Afterward came the awkward phase when he had to stop for naps along the way before he finally admitted he could no longer make the trip.
There was the expectant era before the grandchildren were born and the happy aftermath, when he indulged them with ice cream, carnival rides, and hand-made rocking horses. He often vowed to live long enough to be there for the important milestones in their lives. That was a little tweak at me, since I took a while to embrace motherhood.
For the longest time, he seemed indestructible. Then, the man who could fix anything — mechanically, anyway — started unraveling. There was the time just before he went into the hospital last July, and then the six weeks after. That was how long it took him to succumb to old age and assorted treatments for it.
He liked cards with schmaltz. Once I realized that, I went all out.
As his health declined, something happened between us: We drew closer — not in miles, but in intimacy. When I visited him in the year before he died, I helped him wash and dress. At first, he apologized for his neediness. Then, he just thanked me.
Growing up, I had never seen him cry. Towards the end of his life, he cried with happiness when I arrived for a visit and with sadness when I left. For much of his life, he wasn’t that demonstrative. In his later years, he never ended a phone conversation without saying, “I love you.”
Millions of baby boomers have kids in college and parents in assisted living. Some have turned the narrative of aging parents into a cottage industry. There are memoirs, magazines, blogs, and scholarly articles devoted to the topic.
My sister could write our family’s book. She did all the heavy lifting. In the hospital, I rubbed my father’s neck. She wrangled with doctors and nurses for better care.
But I could write the chapter on the guilt associated with living far away, and another one on what it’s like to look into your father’s eyes and see his mortality and your own. Part of the angst of watching an elderly parent fade is understanding that you’re next. All the kickboxing classes, healthy eating, and miracle drugs can’t stop the inevitable.
My dad was aiming for 100 and made it to 92, giving him more years than many people achieve. Through it all, he loved family, country, and golf. Up until the point he could no longer drive a ball or putt, he seemed content, although his life was modest by many people’s standards.
A typical member of the World War II generation, he did a lot for others and didn’t ask for much in return. His Father’s Day expectations showed that.
A gift was fine, but unnecessary. The card was enough, as long as it was sweet and in his hands before Father’s Day. More than once, I paid for next-day delivery to make sure that happened. I usually signed it with a note that said, “Sorry I can’t be with you today. See you soon. Love, Joan.”
In honor of my sentimental dad, let me point out the obvious: This year, only two of those three lines still apply.