It was an innocent enough question: “Are you doing anything special for Father’s Day?”
A beat. A rain droplet against the car window of my Uber. A tongue stuck to the roof my mouth.
“Just spending time with my family?”
It’s been 176 days and I still feel your hand in mine. Rough and cracked from more than six decades of labor and work, heavy like a stone. I don’t know what happened to the mug I got you. Last I saw, it sat underneath the Christmas tree with your other unopened gifts — a graveyard of ribbon-wrapped boxes, as full as the rest of us were empty.
On Christmas Eve, my dad died. Heart failure. It was the day before his birthday (yes, it fell on Christmas, and yes, I sometimes cheated and got him one gift instead of two).
It was early in the morning. Messy hair atop my head and bleary eyed, my mother screamed a spiral of a scream, circles and circles of sorrow collapsing on each other.
My sister and I shot up out of bed and ran to the living room. Dad had collapsed into his chair and now lay there with only very faint sounds of breathing (or maybe I imagined it). My mom called 911 while my sister looked at me pleadingly. I started doing chest compressions (thank you high school and college CPR training and first aid lessons). He was at the wrong angle in the recliner so we lifted him onto the ground.
How two girls with a combined weight of less than 200 pounds did that, I will never know.
I kept doing chest compressions. Froth came out of his mouth, tinted with blood. I tried desperately to do mouth-to-mouth but his jaw was locked. I told my sister to help me roll him over in a vain attempt to keep his throat clear. I didn’t want him to die drowning.
I wiped his mouth over and over, as if though keeping him presentable would keep him here.
I kept alternating between compressions and tilting his head to keep him from choking on fluids.
Eventually, I had one hand on his head, the other holding his hand. Holding him as he had done with me so many times.
A hotel room in Vegas. A ranch with no A/C in Edinburg. A law office with boring brown walls. Outside Farley Hall at Notre Dame.
“I love you my Susie.” “I love you, Luvie.”
Everywhere, he loved me. Everywhere, he was my dad.
Except there, in that moment. In that moment, he was not my dad. I was his daughter. I was the safe cradling hands. I was the protector.
“I love you, dad. I love you. I love you.”
Until the paramedics came. Over and over, forever and ever.
I wanted to get back to Colorado as soon as possible. I didn’t want to sit in that room, I didn’t want to see his empty recliner, his eyeglasses, his walker.
I didn’t want to sit in this museum of what once was.
My dear friend Lea picked me up. We ate dinner and laughed. It was a much-needed night of levity and peace.
My boyfriend bought me a stuffed polar bear and carrot cake. I had been texting him and my other father-less friend during the whole ordeal. We’re all in the Dead Dads Club™.
These people and the countless others who sent flowers, who came by, who brought food and laughter and hugs filled with healing and kindness — well, I have no words of appreciation great enough.
When someone dies, the space that is left behind is so uniquely shaped, it can never be filled. It’s like a fingerprint, but on the soul. And it doesn’t identify you, it identifies the part of you that is them.
The part of me that is Jesus Gonzalez remains, but it is not corporeal. The physical incarnation has returned to wherever we come from. I won’t get religious, but let’s just say wherever it is, I truly believe it is beautiful and bright.
So I’m left with a space. I can try to fill it with material things or accomplishments or money, etc. But the only real substitute is people. The kind ones. The humans who extended their arms and who have helped me each day with their words, their gestures, their friendship and love. You know who you are.
Father’s Day is not just for fathers, but for the people who step up in our lives in their absence. Be it death, abandonment, estrangement, those without dads on days like today would be truly lost were it not for our humans. The ones who lessen the absence to such a minuscule amount that it’s almost like we’ve lost nothing at all.
“Does your family live close enough or are they kind of far?”
“My family is mostly in Texas. But I have a Colorado family I’m spending time with this weekend. Friends and such.”
“Ah. Yeah. It’s funny how the word ‘family’ means different things. I feel like most people nowadays use it as a term for biological family, but also friends.”
“Yeah, that’s how I meant it. My family.”