By: Shannon Ralph
When I found out that the theme for the month of June here at The Next Family was going to be fatherhood, my initial gut reaction was, Well, I’ll be sitting this one out. Fatherhood is a tough topic for me to write about. Not because I had a difficult relationship with my father. Quite the contrary, actually. I was a daddy’s girl all the way. I worshiped the ground my father walked on up until the day he died in 1983 at the young age of thirty-three.
My father was a man who was profoundly changed by fatherhood. A gentle, quiet man, he was a young father. Only twenty-two years old when I was born. On the day my mother brought me home from the hospital, my dad disappeared with me. For several panicky hours, my mother had no clue where he was. As it turned out, he had taken his tiny newborn daughter to the filthy grain company where he worked so he could proudly show me off to anyone and everyone who would stop to look. He was so very proud. On the day I was born, my dad stopped drinking completely. I never saw him drink so much as a single sip of beer. His own father had drank himself to death, and my dad wanted so badly to be a good father. To be the father he did not have.
From my first day of life, I belonged to my dad completely. I loved my mother, but it was my father who owned me heart and soul. I was born one day before his birthday. Two Libras. Two peas in a pod. For the first eleven years of my life, we celebrated our birthdays together. My cake was his cake. My celebration was his celebration. His entire being revolved around me—and later my two sisters and baby brother. He was the embodiment of the quintessential family man.
After my father died from brain cancer when I was eleven years old, I thought about him every single day. For years, he was foremost in my mind. Then the memories began to fade. The details became fuzzy as the years turned into decades. These days, I rarely think about him at all —a fact that saddens me. I wish we had old home videos of him. I find that I have trouble remembering the sound of his voice. The way he moved. His smell. The feel of his hugs. My memories revolve around photographs now. Snapshots of happier times. Him holding me as a tiny baby. Him lying on the floor so I could stand on his back and reach the pool table. Him grinning as I blow out candles on our shared birthday cake. Him standing surrounded by his family at an amusement park. I don’t actually remember many of the moments in those photographs, but I have memorized every single pixel. Every facial expression. Every smile.
I find myself wishing I had the opportunity to have known my dad as an adult. In my eyes, knowing him only as an adoring child, he will always be perfection incarnate. The paragon of the perfect man. Of course, he wasn’t. He was a human being. As flawed as the rest of us. I vividly remember him driving my mother mad by refusing to fight with her. She would scream and rant and rave in her typical hot-headed fashion, and my dad would just sit there and take it with a beguiling smirk on his face. He despised conflict. He and I were—are—alike in many ways. I imagine the conversations we could have had. The things I could have learned from him. He did not have an easy life and I am sure he had great wisdom to impart. I sometimes think about what he would have become. He would be sixty years old now. I can picture him wrestling with Lucas and Nicholas. He would have absolutely adored sassy little Sophie. Would he have retired by now? Would he be piddling around the house, underfoot and in the way? Would he have taken up gardening? Bowling, perhaps? Would he take my boys fishing? Would he dance with my daughter? Would he be proud of the woman I have become?
I have already lived a longer life than my father. He died at thirty-three years of age. Barely out of his twenties. Practically a child. I am thirty-eight now. No longer his baby girl, and a parent myself. Twenty-seven years later, I still mourn the loss of my father. I mourn the loss of the great love of my mother’s life. I mourn the loss of the amazing grandfather my children never had the opportunity to know. I hope and pray that I can be half the parent in my children’s lifetime that my dad managed to be in eleven all-too-short years. His are big shoes to fill, but I intend to try my best to live up to his legacy.