There is a photo of my dad I can’t stop staring at.
In it, he’s about the same age that I am right now. I’m not sure if the memory of him in it or the photo itself came first, but they are linked forever, especially now that he’s gone.
He passed away this summer, just a few weeks shy of his 91st birthday.
In the photo, he is standing in front of a truck and flashing a rare smile from under the brim of the hat he was always wearing. He was a driver for a moving company ― delivering freight to businesses and homes ― on the Oregon coast for 30 years. He mostly took day trips, but they were long ones. This was the era before companies like Amazon existed, and a job like his was a good job.
I used to walk from my school to his office at the depot. He would leave a key with the flirty office clerk, and I would wait in his personal truck for him to return from one of his trips. I usually sat there for an hour, sometimes two, reading, doing my homework, or napping in the late afternoon sun. There were no handheld video games or tablets to help pass the time, and it always seemed like an eternity before he showed up.
Back then I would have said I spent those afternoons waiting for a ride home with my dad because I wanted to avoid riding the school bus and the bullies that came with it. But now I understand it was actually about him ― and me: When his 50-foot freightliner finally pulled into the lot, I always got excited. Every time. I would watch him hop out of the cab and walk toward me, the tip of his fingers tucked halfway in his right jeans pocket, his left hand jiggling his keys, and his expression hidden beneath his hat.
I could never predict if he would be happy or sad when he finally arrived, but I knew he would always be tired. He’d drop his lunchbox with me and promise, “Back in a flash, little shaver.”
There was always something for me in his black steel lunchbox ― a cookie or sometimes an entire candy bar that I would eat while I watched him do his end-of-the-day routine: unload the truck, sweep it clean, and then wash the cab. It seemed like a meditative act, but he might have been stalling a bit before we headed home. He took care of that truck as if it were his best friend or a lover. It was his office for decades ― the bubble, the spaceship that transported him out of his world and along the Pacific Northwest’s stunning coastlines where he wove in and out of strangers’ businesses and lives.
I remember how safe I felt sitting next to him ― his big calloused hands caressing the steering wheel and his deep blue eyes fighting to stay awake under heavy lids that had been open since before dawn. For that seven- to nine-minute drive from his work to our home, it was just him and me.
The rest of the time, Dad’s attention was split between my mom and my four siblings who each wanted or needed something from him. When we got home, he would pop in the house just long enough to eat dinner before heading out to tend to the cows, pigs and chickens that were relying on him too.
The barn was his sanctuary, a place that offered a bit of refuge between his back-breaking work and our often loud, chaotic home. Sometimes I would catch him there, standing completely frozen, guzzling his beer as he stared at the cows who seemed to be staring right back at him.
In the fall, during harvest time, I would go to my room, change my clothes and follow him back outside, through a big, rusty gate and into a garden that spread out for what seemed like miles but was probably less than an acre. It was his pride and joy.
I remember him showing me how to tell if the carrots were ready to be pulled. If they were, he would let me yank one up from the ground and eat it, unwashed, swallowing some of the soil that he had tilled and worked. I can still taste the sweetness of the first tiny sweet orange carrot of the season.
My friend recently told me that when you lose your dad, there is a seismic shift in the world. It certainly was that way for me ― his passing was the death of my dad, but it was also an archetypal loss. He was the person that shaped the way I understood the world. He was my North Star on this strange planet I was trying to navigate. He was the lens through which I saw everything before my own lens was fully open and in focus.
Losing him, while raising a 4-year-old of my own, has stirred up a lot of feelings ― emotions I certainly didn’t have words for when I was a kid and still am unable to articulate today. I now understand so much more about what my dad was going through ― the difficult choices he was faced with, the sacrifices he had to make, the demands that hounded him from sun up until sun down ― and I am considering his life and our relationship with a new kind of forgiveness that eluded me in the years and days while he was still here.
I’m an older dad, so I feel lucky my dad got to witness my shift from being a son to being a father. Even though it was brief, it was the last way we connected.
Dad sent me exactly two pieces of mail during our 56 years on this planet together. I received the first one when I went away to college. I challenged him to send me a letter when I got to my dorm, and I found one waiting for me when I arrived. It simply said, “Here’s the damn letter you didn’t think I would send.” The second ― and last ― one was a Father’s Day card he took great pains to pick out and have my sister send earlier this year. It read, “You’re a terrific father.” I suspect (or at least hope) in this moment near the end of his life, he was talking to himself too. Because though my dad was a man of few words and little free time, he was always there for me. He showed up and made me feel seen and loved, even if it was for just the few, rare, precious minutes he had to spare each day.
In the weeks since he passed, I often find myself curled up in bed trying to sleep off the numb, empty feeling that’s dogged me since he left.
I have experienced loss before, but this time I am acutely aware of two very different sides to grief. It’s simultaneously both solitary and social ― a confusing dance between wanting to be alone and needing to be surrounded by the people I love and who love me.
When I’m with my siblings, we share memories and try to land on a version of a dad we all knew together.
But the truth is, we all lost a different father ― each of us had unique relationships with him and so we have to reckon with his absence on our own. That’s exactly what I’m trying my best to do right now. Some days are better than others. None of them feel especially good right now.
I once had a therapist who was big on photo therapy. She believed that finding a quiet place and meditating on photos can unlock specific, intimate and potentially buried moments ― as well as emotions tied to those moments ― that our brain might not be able to access without an external trigger. I’ve been trying this, and I’ve found she was right: Staring into photos, reading letters, wearing one of Dad’s tattered old work shirts, and even literally stepping into his shoes and taking a walk on the beach has done that for me.
These little trips into the past give me relief ― they pause the pain for a moment ― and I get to spend some time with him again, just the two of us, like those late afternoons waiting for those precious seven or nine minutes when he was all mine. They’ve also solidified an answer to a question I’ve been asking myself ― and worrying about ― since my own son was born: What makes a “terrific father”?
I’ve finally realized, thanks to the time I’ve spent with my dad ― both in person and in my memory ― that to be a good (and hopefully “terrific”) father, I don’t really have to do anything special. I don’t have to say anything remarkable. All I really have to do is show up.
Gerald Olson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He works in film and television and is currently writing a book about his journey as a solo parent. He is the founder of POPPA SOLO (www.poppasolo.com) and can be reached at acuriousworld.com.