A few months ago, my naked, two-and-a-half year old son dashed into my bedroom in a pre-bath frenzy, spun around like a whirling dervish, fell down onto our dog's sleep cushion, and then looked up at a framed photo on my dresser.
"Papa Dickie is cute," he said, pointing.
Three things about the comment made me stop in my tracks:
1. Ryder has never met "Papa Dickie" -- my father, Richard, who passed away nearly ten years ago, and who was almost universally known to family and friends as "Dickie."
2. The photo of my father was taken when he was 17-years-old -- all other photos Ryder has seen of my Dad were taken when he was in his 50s.
3. I'd only placed the photo on my dresser that morning, after finding it in a mildewy box in our basement.
But instead of asking Ryder, "How do you know who that is?" I said, "You're right, Papa Dickie IS cute." For starters, I didn't want to get into a conversation about the "D" word with an inquisitive two-year-old right before bedtime. But more importantly, I didn't want to speak about my father in the past tense, because I still feel him in the present tense every day -- and I want Ryder to as well.
Dad was a smart, funny, caring guy with a great sense of style, and I know he would have been a doting grandfather to Ryder and his cousins, Alexander, age 6, and Gracie, age 2.5. Sometimes I look at my son and get a flash of my father's face; I think they have similar eyes. Dad's wardrobe was right out of "The Preppy Handbook," and whenever my sister and I dress our boys in button-down shirts and khaki pants, we joke that they are channeling Papa Dickie. Whenever all three of the kids are together, whether it is for a day at the beach, an afternoon at the park or simply for a weekend dinner, I always think about how much Dad would've loved to have been there.
My sister and I are amazed how our children seem to know a man they've never met before. They call our Dad "Papa Dickie" in the same way that they call their living grandfathers "Papa Fred" and "Papa Harry." Her son, the firstborn grandchild in our family, has always been aware of Papa Dickie's presence in our lives. When we've taken the kids to the cemetery to visit Dad for Father's Day, they seem oddly at ease there, as we all place stones on top of Papa Dickie's grave.
Trust me, I know the way this all sounds. I won't deny we may be looking for these connections to my dad because they help ease the pain of my father not getting to fawn over his beautiful grandchildren, or be here to see my sister and me as mothers, or impart to his wisdom, humor and amazing fashion sense onto our children. But I do know that we saw a butterfly -- which many cultures view as an incarnation of the dead returning to friends and relatives -- outside the window of the ninth floor loft space where my sister got married. And that another butterfly flew around the chuppah of my own wedding for the entire hour-long ceremony. And that my due date when pregnant with my son was my father's birthday, July 20th.
Maybe, just maybe, these little incidents are total coincidences, and we cling to them to help ease the pain of loss, because they make us feel that much closer to my dad. Whatever the reason, on Father's Day, when I feel that dull pain in my chest that reminds me I no longer have a father, I find these moments extremely comforting. And I'm thankful that Papa Dickie has a presence in our children's lives, one that feels living, breathing and tangible. Even if it just means that he is recognized in a black and white photograph propped up on my dresser.