This Father’s Day, I’m Remembering the Gift My Dad Gave to Me

This Father’s Day, I’m Remembering the Gift My Dad Gave to Me

June 02, 2022

The writer Natalie Rinn (who happens to be a dear friend), lost her dad in 2010. I asked her to reflect on what Father's Day has been like for her in the years since and she wrote a beautiful piece about a realization she had in the weeks leading up to Father's Day in 2021. Natalie is a writer, editor, and podcast producer. She is from Minnesota, and a current resident of California, where she loves to hike and run its many landscapes. You can check out some of her work here.

If you are facing this holiday after a loss, I hope reading this will help you feel less alone. If you want to support someone who is grieving, we put together a collection of cards that might be appropriate to send someone approaching Father's Day with a heavy heart. 

My dad died in 2010. This both seems like a long time ago, and no time ago. But not “no time” in the sense of a short period of time – more in the sense that it no longer feels like it exists in time. It feels like a fact. He once lived, and he no longer does.

But for a very long time, it did not feel like that at all. It was a debilitating fact. It felt monumental and confusing, bottomless and insurmountable. It felt like something I would never move beyond. And while it is way too simplistic to say, “but today, I have moved on,” in all honesty, I feel something like that. It’s no longer the most consuming emotional burden in my life. It's become something that – while frustrating – I can live with.

So the reason I wanted to write about my dad today is – yes – it is an American holiday where everyone either celebrates their dad, or celebrates the father figure in their lives, or laments them, or remembers them, like I’m doing.

But more than that, I want to write about him because, at last, I’ve understood not just what he meant to me, but what he gave to me. And because getting to this place of understanding was both such an epiphany, and such an exhausting journey — and also one that finally includes some relief — I want to share what I’ve learned. Because since I came to this new understanding about losing my dad, the idea of “loss” has transformed for me completely.

But to explain, I gotta go to the beginning.
My dad was a really good dad, but he was also my favorite person. He was smart, funny, egoless and handsome. He worked very hard and dressed with care. He was interested, genuinely, in everyone, and comfortable in his own skin. He was a talented question asker, and liked to play – at basically everything: at any sport, at little word games, by making short movies at home, by tickling children, and cracking dumb jokes. And he always kept the bigger picture in front of mind. He used to say, “Don’t sweat the petty stuff, and don’t pet the sweaty stuff.” It was a joke, but also a life philosophy. Actually, it really is a good example of how he lived his life: Thoughtfully, with a disproportionate sense of humor. He was just a lovely, grounded, present, disarming, calming special guy.

And, miraculously, he was my dad. And loved me an embarrassing amount. And I didn’t understand why. Because I was a child. All I did know was that he loved me more than anyone. And even without understanding it, I knew it felt pretty good.

So when he died, suffice it to say… things took a turn for the worse. I can now look back and say, I spiraled. And then kept spiraling for… about ten years.

I couldn’t hold a relationship. I was perpetually, foundationally unhappy. I, in short, couldn’t find inner peace — the kind of peace that, before, he could give me without effort. All he had to do was be him, with me, and I would be deeply happy. Whereas alone, after he was gone… I was adrift.

And then, after a lot of those upsetting years, a different bad thing happened. I lost another person I loved. Well, a person I was in love with. Not because he died, but because we broke up. So I found myself in a real moment of reckoning. And I was facing what felt like nothing -- no future, no present, no past. Let’s call it: rock bottom.

I’d just sit at home, post break up, doing everything I could to get through the work day. And then, the work day would end, and it would be worse. All I could do is remember and feel just how alone I was, and what I didn’t have.

So one day, I woke up, and it was my dad’s birthday. April 25th, 2021. There I was, 37 years old, in a house I’d bought alone, weeping. How had my life come to this? How had I ended up here, without hope, without a partner, without a family of my own? How had this happened?

I was so at my wits’ end that, suddenly, without even thinking about it, I heard myself calling out to my dad, into the void. It sounded like a clump of wet refuse that was making a pathetic moan: “Daaaaaad!” It was a deep, aching wail, just like the kind I made when I was sad and three years old, and unable to understand anything. Then, like now, the only person who could fix what was broken was him. All I wanted, I realized, was the person who loved me more than anyone ever had.

So in my weeping stupor, I walked to my closet. I reached up to the top shelf where I’d stored a box of childhood photos my mom had sent me. I grabbed it, and sat on the cold floor that still didn’t hold any furniture. And then I started looking at the photos.
Natalie Rinn and her dad having a moment
There I was, four years old, wearing a pink polo shirt, a jean skirt, and rainbow ribbons in my pigtails, standing next to my dad, who was crouching down next to me. He was wearing jeans, work boots, a plaid button down and a huge, proud grin: It was my first day of kindergarten. In another picture, there I was, grinning like a joker, sitting on my dad’s lap, with my mom next to both of us, in my first communion dress. In another picture, there I was, 18 years old, holding a plastic Tupperware container with sandwiches, and my dad was standing next to me with his arm wrapped around my shoulder. He had made those sandwiches and was about to drive me to my first year of college. And there I was, still in another, probably about 10 years old, crunched up in his lap, looking up at him, as he stared, knowingly, down at me.

And suddenly, it hit me: For years, day after day, week after week, month after month after month, the only way I had been able to think about my dad’s death was in terms of what I had lost. What I no longer had. What I could never get back and how my life would never be the same because of it. “Look what I lost! It’s so unfair! I’m wounded!” Very productive, as I imagine you’re thinking.

But in that moment, with the help of what those pictures brought to life — in a flash — I saw it differently. Because right when I needed him most, there he was, with me. But it was in a way that was more profound than just with his image. For some reason that I still can’t put my finger on, I received a message. Maybe it was from him. Maybe it was because he was also getting sick of my complaining, and self pitying, about how much I missed him. So he showed up to talk some sense into me, like he always had. (He also hated complainers.) And this was his lesson: It wasn’t just that he arrived in those pictures, from the past, to make one little appearance on that day. Much more consequentially than that, I realized, that same guy that loved that little girl in all those photos didn’t stop existing when he died. He was in fact still there — right now. And what’s more, he’d never gone away.
Natalie Rinn as a child with her mom and dadAnd when I say that, this is what I mean: The love that my dad had always given me, was now inside of me. And it wasn’t just in some small corner of me that didn’t matter that much; it was an essential part of who I was — and therefore, of who I had been all along, and still am. The love he gave me — that relationship — didn’t disappear when he stopped being. I still have it. He and it and what we shared, live in me.

And so for all those years when all I could do was focus on what I’d lost, at last, I realized, none of it had ever left me. Because of what he gave me, I have more than I'll ever need.

Now, don’t get me wrong.There are plenty of days and innumerable moments that all I want to do is talk to, or consult with, no one but my dad. And obviously, in the most pragmatic sense, I can’t. I feel this most now that I am an adult, in the middle of a career, and a career he inspired me to pursue. Writing, producing, and making stories. It was also the thing he liked doing most — asking other people questions about their lives, and then making something from it. So many times all I’ve wanted to do is ask his advice about what he’d do in such and such a circumstance — how he’d manage to stay so organized and focused, sticking to his writing and research schedule. Or how he’d end this particular sentence or paragraph. Or what he’d think about leaving this job and going to another. I’d trust no one more than him with so many questions like these. And not being able to do that really stinks. But it is something I can live with. And part of what allows me to do that is knowing that he would do the same, and did do that exact same thing when he lost his mom from breast cancer when he was fifteen.

And yet, here’s something else I know: I would have a very hard time dealing with almost anything if I had never had anyone who loved me like he did. Because I believe more strongly than almost anything that the people who have loved us most, make us who we are. They blow wind in our weak, and fallible human wings. They allow us to keep carrying on, and to spread that same power to others, by loving them too. And once that love is given, it assimilates into our beings. It becomes who we are. And in that sense, we don’t lose those special people. We have them forever.

So dad, all there really is to say, is: I love you so much. And thank you so much for having loved me.

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