When I was in my early 20s, my father gave me a cedar chest. Painted white with a floral pattern, I fell in love with it at one of the fancy shops in downtown Geneva, IL. It was beyond my budget, and I knew I would never have it, right up until I did. I don't remember how it happened, but I know that for my birthday, I received that cedar chest. It has been my coffee table or my bed bench ever since.
I love it because I've had it for more than half my life, but I love it more because it came from my father.
The earrings I'm wearing right now - the little Hawaiian slippers, in perfect sterling from Na Hoku on Oahu - are the gift he brought back for me on a trip to the islands with my sister. I'm sure she played a part in selecting them for me, because I'm sure my dad doesn't remember that I bought myself the matching pendant when he and I were on Oahu a few years before. But still, I love wearing them, because they came from my father.
So many things he has given me over the years. At the moment, they all feel like heirlooms. The bench in my bathroom, which he built with his hands. The shelves that hold my books, which he cut from a huge piece of lumber just a year ago.
He is present in every room of my home. My dresser is a perfect blend of both Mom and Dad; it was a flea market find that Mom bought without a top on it. She picked it up because she fell in love with the hardware, and Dad built the top out of scrap lumber. And my bed? Dad bought it for Mom when she was recovering from surgery after breast cancer back when I was 11 or 12.
I'm not sure how I'm going to cope with Christmas, because he is all over my tree. When I was a teenager, he gave my friend Patrick and I the first string of lights for the first tree we ever put up apart from our families. Christmas has always been our "thing," and many of my ornaments came from my parents. After Mom died, Dad began purchasing for us the annual Swarovski crystal snowflake ornament; those are so special, because they feel like a legacy from Mom while they're also a gift from Dad.
But those tangible things are nothing compared to the real gifts. The ones that can't be opened, but seem to get a little more uncovered as I grow older. My sense of humor, my absolute lack of patience for liars, my tendency to eat dessert first.
And yet there was one I didn't see coming. In the last month of his life, my father gave me a gift that I wasn't prepared for at all. One that did not have an accompanying gift receipt, so I cannot return it. See, in those final weeks, Dad gave me an entirely different version of myself.
This one comes complete with compassion. And it's sorta blowing me away.
If you'd told me just four weeks ago that there was a day in the not-too-distant future when I would sit with someone in silence or in conversation, just content to be with them, I would likely have laughed. If you'd had the audacity to suggest that I might provide care throughout a loved one's most personal biological occurrences, I definitely would have thought you were off your nut. But there I was, giving it not a single thought.
I'm not writing this to toot my own horn. Nope, not really; it's more a way of pointing out that we are all capable of stuff we might not have thought possible. And caring for Dad (which in turn meant caring for Mike, too, because the care of Dad was the care of Mike at times) was the easiest and hardest thing I've ever done.
I would do it again in a heartbeat. I would switch places with him if I could. But that's not how life works. Instead, I get to be here. Without him.
And I do not like it.
Missing him gets turned up a bit, every day. I am my father's daughter, and he was my favorite person in the world. And it's a big world. I have a feeling it's going to get worse before it gets better, and when it hits me, it could get ugly. But Dad taught me to be strong, and sometimes being strong means asking for help.
Which is another new skill.