I still grieve my father's death. But it's a grief that unfolds over time, with each of my life's milestones unfolding a new way to miss his presence in my life.
Most recently, it's the knowledge that when I look at my son, I see his face. This unique grief is swollen by the fact that my father wasn't around much. I've spent many hours wondering why, a question deepened by my obsession with my own son, whose face I couldn't imagine missing for days on end.
My father left me with very little to hold onto after his car accident. It's a confusing legacy. I can remember flipping through the X-Men cards that he gave me before he died, looking for little papers or notes that he might have left me to tell me I was on his mind. I fantasized that maybe he left a little trail of paper breadcrumbs to close up some wound inside me that only time could heal.
I was really just looking for words that I don't remember hearing him say. Words I hope my son will hear me say so much that he grows tired of it: "Son, I love you. I love you no matter what happens to you or I."
Some of life's questions will just never be answered.
I can thank my father for this lesson. I still don't understand his absence to this day, mostly because the man I know as my dad is such a stark contrast. Even from the days when I called my step-father "Keith," I don't think he ever questioned that I was his.
Despite a love in which I have total confidence, there's something painful about knowing you could have been loved by someone if they had just chosen to.
The legacy of my life, a beautiful one, is that some of the people who have loved me the most made the choice to do so. If I had but just one memory of my father telling me what I meant to him, it's possible that a young man's quest to reconcile his self-worth would have ended where it began - with the memory I wish I had of what he would have told me.
Renowned family therapist Virginia Satir believed that a child's self-worth develops out of what she calls the family triad of mother, father and child. Were she alive today, I think she would amend that rather limited definition of family, but the concept of children's self-worth developing under the umbrella of their caregivers is unquestionable.
What our children believe about themselves depends in part on what their parents tell them to believe.
Had I just one memory of my father's words over me, then perhaps my constant wondering would have been relieved by confidence instead of fragmented images, competing to narrate the final verdict on his memory.
Instead, I find myself more often fantasizing about what he would have told me if he were still here.
I take that longing, an unfulfilled yearning, and I turn it outward toward my son. A kind of emotional life insurance policy. I've learned never to get too complacent about expressing the love I feel for those in my life. Outside of a small gold ring and a few X-Men cards, the only birthright my father left me was an emotional debt, by which I was once encumbered and for which I am now grateful. I'm keenly aware of how desperately short this life is.
We should all be greedy for our partners' confidence in our love for them.
We get one certain shot at convincing the ones we love what they mean. We only have a few precious moments to make an embarrassingly big deal of our messy convictions for our people.
She needs to hear you say you love her. She needs to hear it again. He needs to know what you mean to him. Don't believe the lie that once you tell someone you care, they don't need to hear it anymore. Say it again. Say it in big ways. In small ways.
I spend hours in my day working with people chasing the American dream, many of whom achieved it decades ago only to find that the cost of the hustle left them without the loving confidence in which they once trusted. It turns out no dream will ever be able to compete with the strength and power that results from knowing you are loved.
Spend your life trying to outdo yourself. Don't take the risk that the thing you could have said becomes the thing that your loved one wished you would have told them. There is no time. There is no certainty that you will have another chance.