One year ago, I woke up to Facebook reminding me, as I was still groggy and only half awake, to wish my dad a happy birthday.
And for a minute, it felt like salt in my wounds because he’s not here anymore damnit and I silently cursed myself for forgetting to delete his account again.
But then I went on a field trip with 20 first grade boys who were silly and sweet and wanted to feel and touch and learn.
And one of them – one who always has trouble staying out of trouble – seemed to need my attention. So I held his hand while we walked and I gave him my sandwich when he asked if he could have it because he didn’t like his own and I played games with him on the bus to distract him from hitting the other boys.
And at the end of the day, he quietly came and took my hand and whispered “Was I good today?” I realized this was a question he asks a lot and I know what the answer usually is.
I looked in his eyes and the rush of my own loss and pain and love smacked me in the face as I realized my dad is still here damnit. He had been there all day, standing next to me and this little boy, pushing his hand into mine on a day when we were both struggling. On a day when we both needed each other.
The boy saw the look of shock register on my face, mistook it for a condemnation of him, and said dejectedly “I wasn’t, was I?”
I knelt down and held his hand again and told him he was good. He was more than good. And he smiled. A real smile. A smile from some place deep inside where words can not form. And I whispered “Happy Birthday Daddy” as he gave me a hug goodbye.
That was the first of many hugs. Every Thursday, he comes to find me in the Lower School library where I volunteer and gives me a hug.
On Valentine’s Day, he walked in and pressed this into my palm.
He had no way of knowing of course, but Tootsie Roll was what my dad used to call me.
He still struggles. I do too. Maybe that’s what we see in each other.
Since August, I have been grappling with big doubts, big feelings and big questions about my purpose in this world, about whether loving hard is making a difference.
My family and my friends and so many of you have been patient and supportive and loving, even when I could not be those things to myself.
But the truth is, the one person I wanted to talk to most, the person who understood me better than anyone, the person who could calm my heart with a hand on my arm, wasn’t here.
For the first time in my entire life, when I needed him – when I really needed him – he wasn’t here.
Until today, when I walked into the classroom and that same little boy came up behind me silently and gave me a different kind of hug – the kind of hug that lasts so long you need to catch your breath – and whispered “Hugging you is like hugging my mom.”
The mom he doesn’t live with. The mom he misses every day.
I hugged him back, and I whispered, for the second year in a row, “Happy Birthday Daddy. I miss you too.”
It’s really easy to dismiss all these things as coincidence. To say that we who are left behind on this earth are so desperate for a connection to the people we miss that we find meaning where there is none. And I wouldn’t blame you.
But I respectfully disagree.
Over the last two and a half years, my dad has sent me signs to let me know he is still here. He is always here. They come when I least expect them, but when I need them the most.
And perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned since my dad died is that love is bigger and stronger and more purposeful than I ever imagined. It is bigger than life. It is bigger than death.
We have been taught – by society, by experience, by life – to be afraid of love. To view it as a weakness. To think it is valuable only if it is returned in equal measure.
But when we do that, we lose sight of the fact that love is only real if it is given with no conditions, no expectations, no reward. And that is hard. It is hard to be so vulnerable. But the very thing that makes it hard is what makes it true.
Love hard friends. Even when it is hard. Especially when it is hard.