One of my earliest vivid memories of my dad involves the 80’s and his hardcore representation of its fashion sense right down to his popped collars and his permed hair and his pastel sweatshirts prominently displaying the Guess logo–the ones my cousin Tracy used to borrow when she came to visit. Except this memory is about 2nd grade fashion and the first day of school outfit. My dad took me shopping at Oakland Mall late that summer to pick it out. He was often the one who took us clothes shopping because he, unlike many other dads, loved the mall. He also didn’t subscribe to the limitations of what was sensible attire for a second grader. There was nothing sensible about my dad’s ideas–he was creative and fun, so he skipped the piles of neatly folded Wrangler jeans and turtlenecks from JCPenney’s and took me straight to the 80’s mecca–Merry Go Round–to lay the foundation of my second grade back-to-school outfit with accessories that were hardly appropriate for a girl who didn’t yet understand the cover themes on Sweet Valley High books. But I felt so special and thought my dad was the coolest when I came home and laid out the final ensemble–a baggy yellow sweater that was loose enough to pull off my shoulder if I wanted to, a knit black skirt that could pass as “mini” and large hoop earrings that totally looked like something Madonna would wear. My mom would tone it down with the innocence of a two-braid hair-do, but I didn’t care because mini skirt.
I knew my dad was different early on. I didn’t know what made him different, but I knew he didn’t quite fit the mold of other kids’ dads at my school. I thought nothing of it though. So my dad laid in the sun in a Speedo in our backyard while we played and openly cried in front of our friends. Whatever.
He was, he is…expressive. And this, my friends, is the greatest gift my father has ever given us–the legacy of creative expression, of unfiltered sentimentality, of a freely flowing faucet of wild colors and ideas and words and emotions that yes, have embarrassed us many times, but set an example of what it looks like to freely express who you are.
My brother and sister and I spoke at his retirement party a couple years ago, and after my sister and I delivered our pre-written speeches, my brother went up to the mic to wing his, a classic move for my brother that started with a risky joke that made everyone in the room laugh. He ended by saying, “If you’ve worked with my dad, you know he’s an expressive guy. Growing up, I was often embarrassed when he’d cry during a prayer in front of my friends–like, ‘Pull it together, Dad.’ But you know what? I think it’s what I’m most proud of now, and I want to be like that–not afraid to let my emotions show or worry what people think.”
I am so proud to call my expressive father my best friend and so grateful that he’s here, healthy and vibrant and so very much a part of our lives. There is a part of me that has always believed he is invincible, tethered to life by his own vibrancy and the eternal youth that feels locked in place by the strength of our family structure–we are all here, we are life lovers, we are grateful, we are years from heartache, years from ever having to think about what it’s like to have older parents or to lose them. And I still believe that. But when my dad’s brother died two years ago, it brought the sobering truth that so many broken hearts have experienced–that we can’t hold our fathers’ hands forever. And I lose my breath at the the mere thought of what that would ever feel like because my dad’s presence is so big, so colorful, so expressive, that a world without him feels dull.
A friend of mine–my same age–lost her father this year. I heard from another friend, immediately reached out to offer my condolences, and coincidentally bumped into this friend a few days later at the grocery store. I’ll never forget what that looked like, pushing my cart around the corner, meeting eyes with her and running to hug her. No words, just tears. Her weight fell into my shoulders, and I could feel her grief through that hug, through her arms wrapped so tightly around my neck and the way her body shook against my chest as she cried. “I loved him like you love your dad,” she said. And I knew what that meant. He was her best friend.
In my gratitude for having my dad here, for getting to enjoy his presence and his lessons, his friendship and his love, I give back the expression he has taught us, committing to living loud and pouring all of my colors into the world, embracing my sensitivities and sentimentality and turning my creative faucet on full blast. And this Father’s Day, I celebrate him and that expressive spirit with some big 80’s hoop earrings, a mini skirt and a whole lot of love. I draw the line at the Speedo.