I lost my dad when I was 23 years old. I was days away from completing my first year of graduate school. It was tragic and unexpected, as tragedies generally are, and I remember drifting through the days, wondering if I would ever feel whole again.
That first year felt impossible. Holidays, birthdays, Father's Day, celebrations, big and small... everything seemed to be missing something. At times, it felt unfair. He would never walk me down the aisle. He would never know his grandchildren. He wouldn't be there to guide me through buying a car, buying a house or countless other "firsts" of adulthood. Had he taught me everything I needed to know?
It would be years before I realized that he had.
My brother walked me down the aisle. It was perfect. He laughed at my nervous sarcasm, traded quips with me as we navigated the rickety wooden stairs (and managed to avoid falling on our faces) and gave me away to my husband with a smile and a hug. Although part of me yearned for my dad in the moments leading up to that walk, the moment we took the first step into a glorious day by the sea it hit me: He left me with everything I needed.
Time heals and the best memories come to light as the sadness fades away. Sixteen years later I think back on the tidbits of wisdom he imparted over the years (my dad was the king of the one-liners) and realize that he took the time he had with me to prepare me for almost anything, and his words are forever etched across my soul.
10 Life Lessons I Learned From My Dad in 23 years
1. Family consists of the relationships you choose to nurture.
Life is hard and families can be complicated. My dad's story isn't mine to tell, but his family changed over time. As an adolescent, I questioned him about these changes. Did he miss the people he no longer saw?
His answer was simple: "This is my family. Your family is made up of the people you love, and the people who love you back. That's all you need."
2. Kindness counts.
When people recall their memories of my dad they often refer to him as friendly, kind and generous. They talk about long boat rides, endless summer parties and the fact that he was always willing to pitch in and lend a hand.
I know he secretly lived in fear that I would bring home every wounded bird I encountered. I was always trying to help. As much as some might say that can be attributed to personality, I like to think that some it came from my parents. They taught me to be kind and help out when I can, and I teach my children the same.
3. Bravery happens when you're ready to be brave.
I was petrified of my dad's boat when I was young. It was loud and stinky and made a horrible cracking sound each time he took a wave. My brother loved it. I cried every time they strapped the life jacket on me. For four years, I never even made it out of the lagoon.
I knew his boat was important to him. Kids know things. And I wanted to love that boat just as much as everyone else. So at the end of my fourth summer, I made an announcement: "When I'm 5, I'd be brave." For that entire winter following my fifth birthday, I bravely chanted that refrain. And when the boat showed up in the garage that spring, the anxiety set in. Sensing my hesitation, my dad leaned down and whispered, "You don't have to be brave this year. You can be brave when you're ready."
I never forgot that interaction. When I stepped off the dock and onto the boat that summer, I stood tall and smiled. And I loved every second of it.
4. Girls can, too.
It seems as though I came out of my mother's womb preaching feminism. Just 19 months behind my brother, I was determined to prove that I could do anything he could do. To this day I'm not sure why he didn't tape my mouth shut for most of our childhood (I should send him a bottle of wine or something). "Girls can, too," I would yell, just in case I might be left out for being a girl.
As it turned out, my dad agreed. He taught me to throw a football. He spent hours playing basketball with me in the driveway. When I took up lacrosse and beat down the garage door with a ball, he smiled and winked. When I insisted on playing ice hockey with the boys, he ran out and bought all of the equipment.
Years later, my mother would admit that his plan was to help me see that I was just as tough as any boy. Evidently, he thought this would scare the boys away from me.
I remember walking to the car from a game one day when another parent complimented him on my playing. "She plays like a boy," shouted the other dad. My dad smiled and waved then leaned down close and said, "BS, Kate, you play better than any boy I know. Don't forget that." Girls can, too.
5. Hard work will get you everywhere.
I was always the kind of student who wanted to get straight A's and cried when a B+ showed up on my report, so I never needed any intervention when it came to school. But my dad noticed my hard work. He frequently complimented my writing and my focus and reminded me that my work ethic would help me reach my goals. All of them. As it turns out, he was right.
6. It's OK to walk away sometimes.
There was one summer when my dad was reading the most boring book of all time. It just sat on the coffee table for days at a time. Occasionally, he would pick it up and read a few pages, only to return to the newspaper. I finally asked him about it. "Sometimes things aren't what they seem, Kate. It's important to know when to walk away. I'm walking away from this one."
I'm not a quitter by nature, but I have walked away from a couple of things that weren't as they seemed. And I've never once regretted a decision to leave something behind.
7. If you can count your friends on two hands, you're good.
Adolescence was torture at times. I never knew where I fit in. My best friend went off to boarding school, and I couldn't quite fill the void. I was sobbing over my outcast status when my dad presented me with this little nugget of wisdom one night. I didn't believe him at the time, but I've seen the light. I can count my friends on two hands, and I feel blessed.
8. Mom is often right.
There were times when I did what every child on the planet does when desperate, lobby dad when mom says no. He always listened and encouraged me to plead my case, but then he hit me with the one-liner that made my blood boil: "Your mom is usually right, that's why you're mad." You hear that, kids? I'm right.
9. Every sunset has meaning.
My dad loved a sunset. He was most at peace with himself at our house by the beach and he never missed a sunset during the summer months. It was the summer before his death that I asked him what he loved about sunset.
This is what he said: "If you've had a rotten day, sunset reminds you that another day is ahead. If you've had a great day, sunset reminds you to soak it in. Either way, it's a win."
10. Life is short; make it count.
Fifty-two years doesn't seem like enough, and yet that's what he had. I believe that my dad did the best that he could with the time he had.
If nothing else, he always encouraged me to just be me. "At the end of the line, you only have who you are. Be the best version of you. People will respect you for it."
I like to think that my dad found an ocean in the sky with a never-ending sunset to remind him that better times are ahead. And maybe even a boat that doesn't make quite so much noise...