I remember I was holding your left hand and Jeanne was holding your right. We were walking to Eddie’s, hunting the forested path for thimbleberries and those tiny wild strawberries that were so sweet. You were swinging us by turn, and we were laughing from our guts and begging to go again, again, again. Your hands squeezed hard around ours and we flew, all the way to where the green stopped and the world began.
That was the moment I knew you could do anything.
I’m taller now, and you are a “senior citizen.” I keep waiting for the day I’ll beat you on a bike or a hike or at Texas Hold ’Em, but you’re still Superman in penny loafers, even if you can’t scoop me up in one arm and fly me through the cedars like you did that day. Maybe in 10 more years you’ll get some wrinkles and take up golf like you’re supposed to. Young as you are, I know you won’t always be here.
There are things I would say about that, things no greeting card can touch. So I’m writing this letter to thank you, first and foremost, for my life. It must have been tough having another baby while on call at the hospital, especially one who snacks on dirt and plays with your forbidden pocketknife and never, ever goes to bed without a fight. But you were there, reading us stories by Pearl S. Buck, L. Frank Baum and Harper Lee. You were the tickle monster and the reasonable half of Santa Claus.
When you and Mom brought that live lobster home and I threw my body in front of the boiling water, you saw in my eyes I meant it. So you surrendered the creature, and we drove all the way to the ocean to let it go. You came to the funeral I threw for the first mosquito I ever killed. And you let me cry as long and hard as I wanted when none of the hamsters, mice, fish, birds, snakes or dogs managed to live forever. Rather than bust my chops, you told me my soft heart was special, that butterflies and ladybugs landed on me because they could tell.
I’ll never forget the painful days you spent teaching me to drive a stick shift uphill and the painful nights helping me “get” geometry, or the gentle way you broke it to me that my writing didn’t need every big word. Then there was the time I said yes to two different boys for junior prom, and you said I was an idiot. You always tell me the truth.
Sending me to college was the greatest gift you ever gave (that or the kerosene space heater that looks like R2-D2). One of my favorite memories from those years is the dinner at Ruth’s Chris, the first time we drank too much together and really talked like friends.
When my heart broke for real, I didn’t call anyone. I got in my car and drove straight to your door. You sat with me all morning and let me fall apart. Then you said something I carry with me, about what I’m worth. On that day you are the only one I would have believed.
I dream about dancing with you at my wedding, the way you’ll click the time behind your teeth and do the steps as though they’re drawn on the floor. Textbook. I imagine bringing my family to Kveldro, where my children will learn the wonders of Chocolate Spoon and hear your ghost stories and watch the tendons in your hands while you play “Satin Doll” on the piano for the millionth time. I want them to know where I come from.
As fathers go, you haven’t missed much on the checklist. You taught me to fish the civilized way, to change a tire and fire a gun and throw a good punch. You tolerated most of my boyfriends. You helped me buy my first home. And you knew so many of the answers to the extra credit worksheets in my eighth grade history class that I could have flunked everything and still gotten an A+. We don’t always agree, but there’s no one I would rather go rounds with about Peggy Noonan.
When you are gone, many years from now, I will walk to the spot in the woods where Pop and Tuffy are sprinkled and put you between them. I might even bake a huckleberry pie and leave it there under the tree, where no doubt it will mysteriously disappear. I will visit often to tell you that I miss you, that I will never stop trying to make you proud.