How do you keep a father’s memory alive? For adults, the answers are plentiful and rich. Images and stories from decades together flow into recollection, and we choose from them the ones that touch us on Father’s Day.
But what of a child, whose memories of Dad are crowded into a few short years? What do you do when your pictures with Dad show not only a man you don’t remember well, but a child you barely recognize as you?
When 14 year old Zack walked into my office, he was six inches taller than I remembered him. He waved his lacrosse stick around like any fourteen year old, unconscious of how long his arms were now, and unaware of how close he came to knocking over my lamp.
“Hey Zack, good to see you. You want a water?” I offered, glad to see him tuck the stick behind his feet under the couch.
I’d known him since he was 10; a wiry bundle of energy then, not sure what to do with all the emotions that swirled around his father’s unexpected, accidental death. He’d done well since, with a Mom who gave him lots of support, and I saw him rarely.
“I don’t wanna do the The Father’s Day Thing” be said, diving straight into the reason he and his mom were in my office.
The Father’s Day Thing, as he called it, was a ritual they had created after his Dad’s death: a visit to his paternal grandparents who lived 2 hours away, where the four of them watched what he called the “happy videos,” scene after scene of his Dad with him, lighting birthday candles, throwing him a baseball in the backyard, rough– housing with him on their lawn.
“I don’t want him to forget his Dad,” his mother interrupted. “He loved you so much, Zack.”
“I know that, Mom, I know, but the videos are boring. I’m just a little kid in them and I’ve seen them a thousand times”
“But Zack, they’re the only memories you have,” his mother’s voice broke.
“Then maybe it’s time he made some new ones” I interrupted. They both looked startled.
“I know that sounds impossible, but here’s the truth. Staying close to someone who has died means letting them grow up with you, finding a way to bring them into your life as its changing. It’s not the same as having them there, but it helps.”
We spent the next half hour brainstorming. What was Zack’s dad like when he was in High school? Who would know? Where had he played sports? What other extracurriculars did he like? Was he in a band?
Zack laughed, “No way, my Dad couldn’t carry a tune,” he said, but his expression was curious.
Mom didn’t know all the answers, since she and her husband met in college, but suddenly she brightened. “Wait, he loved his high soccer coach. I think he’s still coaching at the school. Would you like to see where your Dad played, Zack?” she asked.
“Maybe.. it’s better than another round of videos with Gram and Gramp,” he said.
We talked a bit more but the seed was planted, and I knew they could take it where it needed to go.
Death ends a life, not a relationship. And the younger the child, the more that relationship has to be helped along with connections that go beyond the real– life memories of their time together. Restricting a child to those stories locks them both into a time frame, and keeps the child from creating new connections with the person we want them to remember.
I saw Zack a few weeks later. His Mom had arranged a visit to the high school, and the wise coach who remembered his father took him out to the field while they talked.
“Let’s see what you got” he said, looking at the ever- present lacrosse stick, and tossing a ball out ahead of them. Zack took off at a run.
“Jeepers, you run just like your Dad,” the coach yelled, shaking his head. “I tried to get him to work on his gait, but he could never get that down. Here, let me show you how to shift your weight.”
“He said it’ll make me faster off a dead stop,” Zack told me as he recounted the story. “He told me to work on that with my coach.” But the smile on his face said something else.
Not soon; not very soon.
Photo Credit: Getty Images