I loved the feel of his hand in mine. It was strong, but not tight; soft, but sure. Instead of a wedding ring on his left hand, he wore a magnificent gold ring with a garnet stone. It claimed him as a Catholic University Cardinal, circa 1940-something, though the date had worn off long ago. It sits in my bedside drawer, but today, in honor of Father’s Day. I slipped it on my finger. My dad would be 93. He is gone ten years.
Just a year ago, compelled by a clever commercial, – Lederhosen or Kilt? – I spat in a tube and, six weeks later, innocently hit the MY DNA button on Ancestry.com. Within a moment I found out that I’m barely Irish, and was not surprised that Swedish and British blood runs thickly through my veins. As an adopted child from Saint Paul, Minnesota, there was no shock in the results. Ancestry.com? It was fascinating to see Scotland and Wales, Germany, and the Baltic States. I was the very best kind of rescue: A mutt!
It took only a few hours for Ancestry.com to morph into a Pandora’s Box for which I had not bargained. Biological connections outside of my two children overwhelmed me, and my birth father’s family contacted me almost immediately. Within a week, I would connect with my birth mother’s family, evident to me through their shared surnames. Within a month, I would unearth a remarkable number of half-brothers and sisters, and pictures of my birth parents flooded my inbox. By then I wanted to slam the Pandora’s Box shut and seal it with cement.
That is a story that will be told in due course, but not today. This is a story about my dad.
I use the word dad, so that he is not confused with father. A father helps bring life to you, but the dad who raises you brings you to the fullness of it.
I had the privilege of seeing the revival of “To Kill a Mockingbird” last winter on Broadway, and it was riveting. As I lay my head to sleep that night, my mind swirled with thoughts of Atticus Finch, perhaps the finest paternal character of American Literature. As I stirred the following snowy morning, I felt a blanket of peace about me. I had dreamt of my dad.
I rarely dream of loved ones long gone. And, I have no recollection of my dad ever visiting me in the deepness of sleep. If I do dream in the subconscious of night, the memory of it usually flies from me. But that morning, thoughts of a literary dad conspired to bring me the palpable warmth of my own.
There was no action that I remember in that dream, just my dad’s animated face, and easy smile. As I climbed out of bed, I felt happy.
At the time, I was in occasional touch with a half-sister. We shared a father who was married for a time to her mother. She knew him throughout his life. Their relationship had been complicated. That morning, as I wrapped my palms around a warm mug of coffee, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Mary, Good Morning, was going through some boxes and found this picture. Thought you might like to see it.
And there was my father chasing the dream of my dad away. My spine stiffened, and my soul went cold. I wanted to linger in my dad’s celestial embrace, but instead, I saw the face of my father, whose features I see in the mirror each morning, and it interrupted my peace. I had seen pictures of him before, but this one was lively. I share his eyes, thick wavy hair, and broad smile, and I wanted none of it. My barely familiar half-sister could not know that Atticus Finch had delivered to me a dream of my dad. She could not know that a picture of our father would only make me weep and miss my dad all the more.
I remained unsettled the entire morning; agitated and tearful as though the grief over the loss of my dad nearly ten years before reconstituted itself. It felt like a violation.
Sometime around noon, my phone buzzed again. It was my younger cousin, whom I love, but rarely see. She wrote only this, May 9, 1966, and attached a picture:
My cousin couldn’t know, on that cold February day, that the picture she sent me would be like a salve on an open wound. She couldn’t know that, while I chuckled at my four-year-old self, the gift of the photo appeared on its top edges, in the reflection of a mirror. My dear cousin probably missed it herself, but it leapt at me; my dad, watching over me with the same pride and protectiveness he applied until the day he died.
My dad was a rascal, who often burst through the door at the end of his workday, “El, what’s the word today? How was school? Did you kiss any boys? At Sunday morning mass at Saint Margaret’s Church, he loved to coax giggles from me, tickling my knee as Mom glared at us in disapproval. In high school, when a “D” appeared in a report card column, announcing my absolute ineptitude in Algebra, dad came to my bedroom to share his Catholic University report card, and pointed to the same letter next to his math class, “It’ll be okay El! We can’t be good at everything!”
Though never an athlete himself, dad encouraged in me a love of competitive sports that stays with me today. Tennis balls eventually replaced softballs and basketballs, but his interest in my athletic endeavors never faded. In the final year of his life, he moved from Providence to be near me in Connecticut. He moved then with the help of a walker, his aging body wobbly and weary, and begged to come to watch me play tennis one Sunday. It was a friendly doubles game, and I was now an aging 47-year-old athlete, but when I spied him, leaning forward on his walker, I may as well have been 16 all over again. I always felt like he was proud of me. Dad was my greatest cheerleader.
As a child, dad would introduce me to adults; This is Ellen. I had to go all the way to Saint Paul, Minnesota to get her. How’s that for good luck? My adoption was treated like a life-long stroke of good fortune; a celebration dad loved to share.
This morning I remembered a day that conspired to muddle me, and as I slipped on that beautiful gold Catholic University ring, I recalled this truth: The dad who raises you is the only one that matters, all the rest is just biology. If life were a lottery? Well, I won the lottery of dads.