Lately, my two and half year old (actually two and eleven-twelfths year old) has been talking about my dad.
“You miss your dad, huh mom?” she says as she softly places her hand on my shoulder at the dinner table.
In fact, she’s been talking about him nonstop…
In the car: “Your dad died, huh mom?”
On the toilet: “Your dad went to the hospital. That’s why he’s not here, huh mom?”
Before bed: “Your dad’s body doesn’t work any more, huh mom?”
In the Story Time room at the library: “Your dad’s in a picture, huh mom?”
And, once last week, while she twirled around in her “pink” dress (which is actually yellow) with the tulle “baller-nina” skirt, she sang with joyful exuberance: “Your dad is dead!”
Each time she brings it up, I wince a little, its randomness and slight insensitivity like being pelted by tiny bits of gravel. I haven’t thought about my dad this much in a long time. It all started when I showed her a picture of my father which I have pinned to a bulletin board in the dining room. He stands there next to a boat, holding up two salmon. His hair in a curly fro and wearing jean overalls. A small child is tucked behind him, perhaps my brother. It must have been the late 70s.
I told my daughter that this was my dad, just like she has a daddy. I imperfectly explained that he’s not alive. That he got really sick and the doctors couldn’t fix him. That his body doesn’t work anymore. Each time I say a little more, attempting to explain death to a two and eleven-twelfths year old. Once I tried to say that he was in heaven but when she asked what that meant, I settled on “he’s only in pictures now.”
I was so young when I lost my father. Many of my memories are acute: the minty smell of the gum he always chewed, the sound of him clearing his throat, the pain I felt when I saw him in the casket for the first time. Then there are the faded ones: the way he crossed his tree trunk legs and an outline of a wallet in the back pocket of his jeans. And some memories are completely lost: the sound of his voice, every word he ever said to me. These days, he’s becoming more and more just a man in a picture, static and enigmatic. I have a hard time articulating why I miss him. But I’m still overwhelmed by emotion on the anniversary of his death, twenty-two years later.
We gave our son the middle name Archer as a nod to my dad. He was a bow hunter, spending his late fall weekends in the Michigan woods, hoping to fill our freezer with enough venison to last the winter. In the summers, my father would set up a target in the backyard to practice. My siblings and I would take turns standing at one end of the clothesline and shooting the child-sized bow and arrow we had. Occasionally my dad coached us but mostly we played with these weapons by ourselves, two missteps away from an After School Special.
We also picked the name Archer because of something I read once in a book called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
“For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and he bends you with his might that his arrows may go swift and far.”
At the time, I had recently experienced a miscarriage, so I mainly breathed in the passages about grief and pain like air from an oxygen tank. But I tucked away the notion about children as arrows in the back of my mind as reinforcement for why I wanted to have a child.
Tonight as my daughter sat on her bed, actively avoiding bedtime, I said to her (or maybe more to myself), “This is the day that my daddy died.”
And she simply replied, “Mmm hmmm. And he can’t have any tea parties.”
Exactly, little lamb. I laughed a little as my eyes filled with tears. There would be no tea parties or any other memory shared with her Grandpa Daniel.
But then I began to think about the passage from Gibran and a deep comfort began to spread in my ever-anxious belly. Even though my children will never actually meet my father, they will know him through me. I am a “living arrow” that he sent out into the world. When I work hard, they will know him. When I laugh heartily, they will know him. When I offer a hand without hesitation, they will know him. He will be more than just a man in a picture.