The other night, Miss Whistle talked a bit about her father-in-law and what he means in her life. She told me about how she moved from the UK to the States as a young girl of 22 and how, from the moment she met him, Big John treated her like a daughter – never a daughter-in-law, never an interloper in the family, never like a stranger that needed getting used to. She went on to say he’s been supportive and kind and open to her for twenty plus years. How lucky is she?
I found myself getting uncharacteristically teary as she talked and I realized I was jealous. Not pea-green-with-envy-jealous. More the kind of jealous you have of a friend you love – you may wish you had the thing they have but are still happy they have it. I was jealous of a relationship I never had: jealous of the opportunity to take care of a dying father, jealous of the time spent saying goodbye and experiencing the process of death in a person with a life well spent. My father died suddenly. At the age of forty-eight. And I was fourteen. Almost fifteen. Younger than Child One is now. So yes, I’m jealous of the opportunity to watch a parent grow old. Jealous of the opportunity to say goodbye.
These are things I rarely talk about. I shy away from them in my own life and often in the lives of those around me. I’d rather not engage in conversation with the family shattered by the death of a child over twenty years ago. I don’t ask Miss Whistle often enough about the health of her dear father-in-law. And I don’t wallow in the personal pain of others. When asked, I answer questions about being a young teen with a dead father with bravado and glibness.
But I cry at shitty movies, elementary school graduations and moving speeches. I blubbered for weeks when my precious Golden Retriever died after twelve years with me. And I found myself weepy in my conversation with Miss Whistle the other night.
I used to fantasize that I would meet a man with a wonderful father and that my future father-in-law would stand in for the father I lost too young. And yet I chose a first husband with a deadbeat abusive drunk for a father and a second husband with a sweet but politically incorrect and sort of checked-out father. Sig Other’s father was colossal in his time – a brilliant man with a charming manner and razor sharp wit. But by the time I came into Sig Other’s life, Shamu was old and aphasic and a little grumpy (though less grumpy than I’d have been had I all his physical maladies). He died a mere shadow of the lion of a man he’d been in his prime, and though I believe he could have been the kind of father-in-law I’d have invented for myself, age and the toll of too many strokes put that possibility well out of reach by the time I met him.
To a certain extent, we are all defined by what's missing in our lives - by what we've lost. I can say that I got over the loss of my father - that I moved on. And in some ways that is true. But in my more honest moments, I will admit to the deep, dark chasm left in his absence. And will admit to disappointment. Disappointment that I never found a surrogate dad, never found a mentor who took me under his wing, a professor who showed me the way or boss who kept a special eye out. And I never stopped hoping that a magical all-knowing father figure would walk into my life with all the answers to life’s great questions.
Marrying an older man was an option, I guess. A sort of wildly clichéd option, but an option nonetheless. I went out on a date with an older man once. He was wildly successful, very rich and provided phenomenal dinner conversation. But by the end of the night, when he tried to kiss me, I was completely embarrassed for him and almost started to giggle. He was so awkward and momentarily adolescent. And it just seemed so silly to me that this man who was thirty years my senior would turn into a little boy making a pass. I couldn’t find a remote speck of attraction. I guess I wasn’t one for a literal father figure.
For years it was there – that deep, black, insatiable hole left by my father’s death and no amount of attention could fill it. Two bad marriages and a myriad of ridiculous choices can attest to that. And then I found Sig Other, and the children, and real love. Sig Other is not a father figure. He could not be more different from the man I called “daddy”. I chose Sig Other because part of me knew no one could ever replace my father. No living man can fill the shoes left by a ghost. Those shoes will always remain as they are in my memory – rugged, sturdy, maybe a little muddy but solid in construction. And Sig Other’s shoes are lighter, more agile, certainly more fashionable and filled by the man who walks beside me in a life we built together. And he doesn’t mind that I weep at mediocre movies, or when I think of the children growing up. How lucky am I?