I didn’t hug my dad for a year.
I know this made me no different from millions of Americans my age. Our elderly parents, many in their 70s and 80s, spent the year celebrating holidays alone and zooming into family birthday parties. My dad was no different, and while he had kept me safe for many years, it was now my turn to protect him.
It was a drastic change for my family, and especially my kids, who had grown accustomed to living with their grandfather. But it was what was best, I told them. Still, it was hard on everyone, especially because of the role my dad had played as the primary caregiver throughout my life, beginning when I was quite young.
My dad became a single parent when we were teenagers after our mom’s death by suicide. At the time, neighbors in our small hometown in Oregon brought food – baskets of bread and trays of lasagna and salads with vegetables pulled from their backyards. I suppose everyone worried that my dad might not know how to cook and that my sister and I might go hungry. I think they also worried that he might break under the strain of raising two teenage girls.
They were wrong.
While my dad wasn’t an expert on the latest teenage styles or the intricacies of high school friendships, he kept us afloat with his steadiness. The cabinets were always stocked, the clothes were always washed, and he was always there, reading or working or cooking at the kitchen table. In those days, we didn’t know what to do with our grief, except that we could hold on to each other. Even after we both left home and went out into the world, my sister and I relied on him as our home base, the one who would come running if a crisis struck.
What we didn’t know – and what he didn’t know – was that his days of parenting were far from over, even once we grew into adults.
Three and a half years ago, my 40-year-old husband quickly succumbed to a fast-moving form of colon cancer, leaving me with three very young children to raise on my own. “What am I going to do?” I cried to my sister in the bathroom as we dressed for the funeral. My youngest child was still in diapers. She said reassuring things to me, trying to get me to stay calm and remember how to move through grief. But we both knew that the reason I was going to be okay was that our dad would be there.
I never asked my dad if he would stay after the funeral; he just never left. In those early days, we didn’t speak much of my grief, even though he must have known how I felt. It was as though he was a spectator in a game that he knew how to play but couldn’t find the way to coach me.
It didn’t matter that he lacked the right words. What would the right words be, anyway? What he knew was how to show up, for me and for my kids. For two and a half years, he packed lunches and washed tiny feet and read books about wizards and fairies at bedtime. When I told other people about my dad, many people would comment on how lovely it was that I let him live with me, to which I’d reply, “he’s the one helping me!” My sister started her own family, and my dad went to visit, but we both knew that I needed him the most, even though she worked full time as an emergency room nurse.
And then, a new kind of crisis struck – the pandemic. My sister knew the harsh reality of what was happening early on, and we worried about my dad living in a house with three school-aged kids. My dad didn’t want to leave, but we told him he had to go. That was the way he could support us this time – by keeping that steady presence from afar. “I need you for the long haul, and the kids do too,” I told him. “We can manage without you. We want you to leave because we love you.”
Every night, my dad called me. Did I need anything? Was I doing okay? Did I remember to get enough milk for the week? He was calling my sister, too, concerned about her exposure in the ER. All of my friends were worried about their parents, because they had health conditions or were isolated or were just really old. And yes, I worried about my dad, too, though when I asked him if he was lonely, he replied, “Heck, no! I’m perfectly content.”
I knew that wasn’t the whole truth. I knew he was worried about his daughters and his grandkids. But he knew enough to stay steady over the phone. He knew enough to say to me each night, “we will get through this, Marjorie.” It was a phrase I’d heard many times over the years from him.
Everyone I knew was trying to take care of their elderly parents during the pandemic. But for my sister and me, my dad was still the one taking care of us.
We spent the year apart, like so many other families across the country. But in the spring, as the vaccine arrived along with a new baby for my sister, we discussed plans to see each other. “First, I need to go and help your sister,” my dad said. She was going back to the ER after her maternity leave, and he would go and stay with her two young children. “Dad, are you sure you can handle two little kids?” I asked with skepticism.
“I’ve done it before,” he said, simply.
I worried about him. When he’d cared for us and even when he cared for my children, he had been younger – and the kids he cared for had been older. Now, he was in his mid-70s watching two kids under two. I called every day. “Are you okay?” I always asked.
“Never better!” my dad said, with a baby in one arm and a toddler in the other.
After a few weeks, I couldn’t take the separation any longer, and I bought a plane ticket to be with them. As I arrived, my dad was standing outside, even though it was late at night. He had his arms crossed, a smile on his face, his white hair blowing everywhere in the wind. He’d never looked better, I thought. Once we were all inside, I wrapped my arms around my dad and my sister, thankful that we had all made it through.
My dad was glowing. There we were, just the three of us, holding onto each other again.