spoilersEvery year, the third Sunday in June rolls around and the world celebrates Father’s Day. It’s a day of backyard barbecues, hand-drawn cards, and outdoorsy gifts. But what do you do when Father’s Day rolls around after the death of your dad? It’s a question that I’ve had to confront in my own life—a question which made its way into my book—and I want to take a silent minute to explore how this day can feel for those of us who acknowledge it while fatherless.

Dad, in my life

Maya dancing with her father at a long-ago wedding
Maya dancing with her father at a long-ago wedding

I was eight when my parents divorced and my father moved across the country for work. The yawning void he left behind overwhelmed me. It was my first big loss, and his absence grew into a bitter knot lodged in my body. I carried the weight of his abandonment there all through my teens, growing like a tree twisting its way around a stone. I realized I could be discarded and my self-esteem lowered accordingly. After a while, my father acquired a second wife and three stepkids. The weight I carried caught fire at this betrayal, this replacing of myself and my two siblings. I made sure he knew how I felt about all of them, him included.

As a young adult, I came to learn the real story and to understand. My father had made the best choices available to him, and always tried to communicate with me when I’d let him. It didn’t untwist my branches, but we were able to build a trusting, loving relationship. My father was a kind, funny, generous man, eager to do anything that brought us closer together. I could have had him in my life earlier if I hadn’t been an angry kid, but I feel no guilt over that. Considering my immaturity and hurt and life with my mother (whom I will save for a different post), of course I was an angry kid.

When I was 42, my Dad died from a heart attack. I was told over text by his stepdaughter. It’s still too tender to describe here. I was just glad he and I had many loving years, and I cherish a saved voice mail from him (🔊 32 sec.) where he says I was “probably the best thing I ever had a part in.” He left it two months before his death.

I miss him. On Father’s Day, I look for ways to embrace his example of unconditional love, regardless of its reception.

Dad, in my book

When writing Painting Celia, I gave Celia a rotten mother (whom I will save for a different post) but didn’t know how to write a father in that situation. At first her Dad was complicit, then avoidant, and finally I went with a heightened absent version of what I know.

At eight, Celia loses her father to suicide. The research on that was brutal, believe me. The Celia I was still getting to know reacted differently than I did—instead of anger, she retreated to selective mutism, declining to speak for a few years. As an adult in the book, she often retreats to that anxious silence when nervous. Celia’s ordeal was harsher than mine, but all trauma carries a similar clawing weight. It shakes us, breaks us, but ultimately, it also shapes us. Silence was right for her as anger was right for me.

I don’t know if Celia learns to forgive her father for what he did. She does realize, eventually, that his “solution” simply handed his burden to others. Maybe in a future book, I’ll have time to show her growing like I did. She and I both are fatherless, but we are never free of their influence; it keeps shaping our roots in unseen ways.

To quote Mr. Fred Rogers, a father figure to many of us in our childhoods, we can celebrate Father’s Day in a wonderful way.

“I’d like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. But wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self. And I feel that you deserve quiet time, on this special occasion, to devote some thought to them.”

I will take that minute on Father’s Day, and other days as well.