This day is a gift.
For most people, it’s a reason to shop frantically for ties and coffee mugs with “World’s Best Dad” on them. For others, it’s another commercial holiday with the sole purpose of buying stuff. And for some, it’s like being a single person on Valentine’s Day.
For 16 years, I celebrated in the spirit of the final category.
I grew up knowing how to celebrate Mother’s Day, with breakfast in bed for Mom and giving her the day off from chores and maybe even going to her favorite restaurant. I knew she didn’t like Hallmark cards very much, but she loved the ones I hand wrote and drew for her. Mother’s Day was familiar, like my mother herself.
But Father’s Day…I didn’t know what to do on that one. I barely even acknowledged its occurrence for most of my life. Like those single folks, I didn’t have a reason to notice its existence, and when I reached my teenage years, acknowledging it only gave me pain and longing for what others took for granted: their father’s presence.
My dad was there when I was born. But I didn’t know his presence again after the age of four.
I didn’t even want a dad that badly until I was in middle school. I still remember the conversation that started it all. It was the last day of sixth grade, and I was talking with some friends from my class. I don’t know how we got on the topic of my dad, but somehow we did, and I mentioned that mine wasn’t around. I didn’t care. I’d never had a reason to care about my absent dad. My mom had just gotten married about a year ago, so having a stepdad was the next best thing, right?
But one girl said something that, to this day, I have not forgotten:
“You don’t have a dad? That’s so sad.”
Wait a minute…sad? Why would I feel sad about that? I was fine without him.
My dad was just…not there. I had mom. I had my extended family. I had a new stepdad and stepbrother. I was normal. I was happy. It didn’t matter.
Suddenly, her words made it matter. It was as if her words flipped the switch that had been turned off for so long. I was no longer normal, no longer happy, no longer fine. I was fatherless, and that I had to be…well, sad.
Suddenly, I started wondering what he was like, gleaning every ounce of information possible about him from my mom, family members, and old videos and photos I had from when I was a baby. I’d always known about my dad, knew I had one, even knew what he looked and sounded like. I just didn’t know what it was like to have him around.
Having a dad that raised me, disciplined me, helped me with schoolwork, came to my band concerts and other extracurricular events, held me when I cried, gave any boys that came over “the talk,” or so many other life events that daughters and dads go through together were foreign concepts to me. The title “Daddy’s Little Girl” was a label I was never given. The Father-Daughter dance at weddings gave me the most mixed emotions, because I thought that dance would only ever be an evasive dream for me.
I hadn’t thought about being sad over my dad’s absence before. After that conversation, any thought of it broke my heart to pieces.
That all changed about 3 and a half years ago.
I don’t know what stirred in me, but I took a chance. It was as if I finally grew tired of wondering and became bold enough to actually do something.
I wrote him a letter. I wrote to a few addresses I found online that bore his name. I sent him photocopies of a picture of us at an aquarium. I was about 2 years old. He was holding me, looking at me, smiling, and pointing to the camera, to my mom, trying to make me focus on her and smile at her. I loved that picture. I couldn’t remember that moment in time, but the fact that it had been captured gave me hope that maybe he’d still want me after all this time.
A few weeks later, he wrote back. A few more weeks later, we talked on the phone for the first time. I still remember hearing his voice on the phone, how surprised I was that his voice sounded just like it had from those tapes so many years ago. How surreal it was to be hearing my dad’s voice, not from a home video, not from faded memories, but on the other line, right there.
I remember the first time I saw him at the airport, waving his arms so I would see him, and running into his arms and receiving a hug from my Dad for the first time in 16 years. I remember the joy in his eyes, how he laughed in happiness, how surreal and wonderful that moment felt.
I remember how excited I was to learn I had two sisters and a baby brother on the way. I had always wanted siblings, and now I finally got to be a big sister.I remember being nervous that my stepmom wouldn’t accept me, and how pleasantly surprised and overjoyed I was when we forged such an awesome relationship. I remember cooking with him and using all these herbs and spices I’d never head of before, and how I worried that my pickiness would make me abstain from them. I guess I inherited some of his sense for flavor, because it was all delicious!. I remember how he taught me more on how to cook in a week than I’d learned in any Home Economics class.
But most of all, I remember noticing how similar this man I now called Dad and I were, even though we had spent most of my life apart.
It’s been a gift to see the qualities I inherited from him: my blinking habits, our facial features, our love of justice and compassion for those around us, our do-everything-at-once-ness, our love of sharing and hearing stories, our outgoing natures. Even the fact that he put a banana pepper in with the batch of green peppers in the grocery store because he decided he didn’t need it anymore.
(Yeah, we’re those people. I apologize to any grocery store employees on behalf of your annoyance with us.)
It’s a gift to hear the stories from him about the family I didn’t know, the great-grandmother who fled first from Russia and then from Palestine. It’s a gift to see him in prayer, playing with my brother, teasing my sisters. It’s a gift to discuss our religions, Christianity and Islam, with him, something I feared would hinder our relationship but brought us so much closer.
I worried he wouldn’t want me. I worried I had done wrong. But life has continued, life has moved forward, and somehow, we both got to share the ride.
I can celebrate this day because I wrote to my dad three February’s ago, asking him to be part of my life. I can celebrate this day because he wrote back. I celebrated this day for the first time in my life three years ago, with a picture frame (with this picture included) and a card.
Yes, I wish I could have had more of these days. Yes, I wish he could have been there for more of my life. Yes, I wish I would have contacted him sooner. Yes, I wish he had never been gone in the first place. I wish for a lot of things to have been different.
But today, I’m thankful. Today, I’m thankful that this day means something to me now. I’m thankful that I can call my dad today and hear his voice and wish him happy Father’s Day. I’m glad that he’s here now, and that I can call him Dad today.
And I’m thankful in a way that all of this has happened the way that it did. Because we get to share the here and now, something I’m not the best at doing. My dad and my journey to find him has led me to be more grateful for the Dad I have now, the family I’ve always had, and the family I can now cherish for the future.
So when I texted my Dad today to wish him a Happy Father’s Day, and he told me he loved me and hoped I would one day forgive him for his absence, I responded in the most honest way I could: “I forgave you long ago, Dad.”
Because forgiveness is all about moving forward, showing love, and mending pain. We can’t change what’s happened; we can only keep going forward. We can show grace and hope to receive it back, and we can continue to love without reservations. We’ve got regrets between the two of us, but there’s tons of hope, grace, love, phone calls, text messages, and visits.
And because I’m reminded of the power of love and forgiveness on this day, because I’m reminded of the gift I’ve been given that is my Dad, today is a gift.