Father's Day and Empty Spaces

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Father’s Day is upon us. Is it an afterthought, following on the brilliantly floral holiday for Mothers? Well, historically it seems so. The first Father’s Day was held in the U.S. on July 5, 1908, following that of the first official Mother’s Day inaugurated on May 10 of that year. So maybe a ‘not-long-after-thought’. However, it took dads more than a few years to get real traction. Congress and Woodrow Wilson established and proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1914. But it was Nixon who officially signed the dads’ holiday into law in 1972.

Are Fathers themselves an afterthought? Certainly the day ‘feels’ different. There is a sometimes tacit acknowledgement of mothers as the nurturing parent. College or not, we all have an ‘alma mater’, a ‘nourishing mother’. Of course this is a generalization, but accurate I think, as generalizations go. Fathers have, until recently, been a checkbook, fixer, porter and other useful things. And while encomiums to dads are proclaimed, to dads who took their kids to ball games, played catch and hugged them when they were hurt, the relationship of Fathers and Sons can be problematic. Ask Willie Loman. Ask me! Mine was difficult. But we’d all like to improve upon the past and so I was so looking forward to being a good father to our daughter, Katie.

There is a word for kids who’ve lost parents-orphans; or spouses who’ve lost spouses, widows and widowers. But there is no word in English for parents who’ve lost children. There is one in Latin, it turns out, orbus or orba, but applies equally to parents and children. Still no unique word. Losing children is a lot less common than it used to be, but that doesn’t explain it. So what does Father’s Day mean to me, an orbus?

Frankly, I can’t recall anything special about the first. Katie was four months old and, since the holiday falls on a Sunday, it had to have been a weekend. That meant my wife, Linda, slept in and I fed Katie through the G-tube in her stomach. She’d had a catastrophic birth accident and could neither suck nor swallow. After feeding, we’d take a walk in the lovely crystalline air of Colorado, under bright blue skies. I don’t recall this vividly, but almost all summer mornings in Colorado are brilliant. We’d walk. And we’d talk. Or I’d talk.

The next year Katie was gone. Linda and I had mourned, each at our own unique pace. Mourning is like that, and the lack of synchrony has to be understood and respected. During Katie’s brief life, Linda had grieved deeply every night, on a brass stool in the master bath, by herself, while I slept a deep martini sleep. Linda would drink as well, after the night nurse arrived, but the wine was no soporific for her. As my heroine, Kate, in Sun Valley Moon Mountains did, she would sit alone and cry until the well ran dry and it was time for both of us to shoulder the responsibility of caring for our damaged daughter. There was no time for self-indulgence while Katie was awake.

Oh, we asked ‘why’. You always ask ‘why’. But we came to the conclusion that, as Lao Tse wrote: ‘Nature does not play favorites. She regards her creations without sentimentality.’

But emotionally I followed a different path from Linda’s. After a solitary crackup the first morning after Katie was born, I just became her dad and accepted her as she was, not dwelling on what she and we had lost. Then, on Father’s Day, the year after Katie had died, the enormity of our loss ran over me like a bus. Linda had come to some kind of terms with our daughter but I needed to catch up. As I said, grieving is like that. Father’s day was a trigger. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the third Sunday in June. But it acted as a catalyst, as the smell of a cigarette might to an alcoholic at 5 PM.

What had I given our child, as a father, I wondered. I groped for memories. But rather than concrete events I kept encountering empty spaces. I recalled that on the day she died, after they had taken her away, we had both remarked how quiet the house was, absent her raspy breathing and solitary cries. And that emptiness unwound like a ball of twine, unraveling all the vacant spaces surrounding me on that second Father’s Day. I closed my eyes and ran my hands over the outline of her body. And I can still feel it to this day. As I can recall the scent of her hair, recently shampooed and shining a bright gold, auburn. I can still feel my hand cradling the back of her head and I can feel the softness of her cheek against my lips. All in empty spaces.

I’ve kept those thoughts close over the years and sometimes they make me smile. She never did smile. As I pass my hands over the empty volume that used to contain her body, I wonder if she received anything more from me than ‘utility’. Feeder, driver, changer. I certainly hope so. Though as Lao Tse said of utility: ‘A wheel is useful because it has emptiness at its center, through which an axle might pass. A bowl is useful because it is molded around emptiness waiting to be filled.’

But if the quantum physicists are correct, that no information is ever lost, that every encounter of every particle across the vastness of time is stored on it, then perhaps that which was Katie will ‘remember’ that the touch and the voice of her dad were of the nourishing kind, from an almus pater, and not simply utilities. A space not empty at all but filled with meaning. Perhaps she will feel the touch of my hand as I outline the now empty space that once held her.

Paul Sinsar was born in Danbury, Connecticut, on September 11, 1950. He ‘prepped’ at Danbury High School and received an A.B. from Princeton in 1972. After graduation he moved to New York City and began a career as a bond trader. He and his wife lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for twenty years, and spent another twenty in Denver, Colorado, where their daughter Katherine was born, and died. Presently they reside in Monterey, California. Sinsar began writing after the death of Katherine. He is the author of the Ur Legend Series. More information is available at ajaxminor.com.