I got married in my home church in Wisconsin on a day in January when the sky was blue and biting. The lake was frozen solid and dotted with shanties the sturgeon fishermen had hauled out and stocked with beer as soon as the ice was thick enough to hold a pickup truck.
I stood at the back of the church in a dress that could have been warmer with my brothers on either side. They were both as tall as my dad, or taller, and looked so much like him, it made my grandmother catch her breath because when she saw them, she could almost swear she was looking into the face of the son she lost so many years before.
It should have been my dad on my arm that day.
But it wasn’t.
I had my brothers instead, and it was fitting and right because we had been down so many other roads together. I wanted them there beside me the way I wanted them beside me when my father slipped into eternity without saying goodbye. We stood together when we looked into his coffin and we stood together then, stepping awkwardly down a too-narrow aisle in time to the music. On that bitter cold day in January, they gave me away in place of my dad to a man my father would never meet.
It was hard not to feel the loss. There’s something about a bride walking down an aisle without her daddy that makes people blink fast and swallow hard.
Dads should be there on days like that, on the red-letter days when the calendar screams of life-changing events like high school graduations and college commencements and birthdays and marriages and babies and the news of twins growing inside.
My dad missed every single one of those.
And I miss him on those days.
But I also miss him on the brown-paper bag days, the ordinary days filled with a million insignificant events like scraped knees and bedtimes and cold cereal mornings.
Dads should be there on days like that.
Because life is short. I learned that fast and young when a snowy winter road took my dad before I even had a chance to say good-bye. I watched him go, that morning, you know? I watched him go and I didn’t say good-bye because I thought he’d be back.
I missed him hard, at first, like some piece of me had been cut out and replaced with cold air that kind of numbed but mostly burned. I missed him every day and in so many different ways, I didn’t think I’d ever stop grieving because I kept finding new ways to do it.
Many years later, when I looked back on a grief-journey that spans more years than my father ever lived, I realized I have learned something along the way. It is something so important, I wish I could grab you around the shoulders, dads, and make you hear it.
Someday, you’re going to slip right out of your body and your kid is going to be left grappling with the loss. It’s kind of strange how one soul can be free and another weighed down by the same event. You will be gone, and they will be here, remembering.
Do you know what they’re going to miss the most?
I want to tell it to you because it’s important, and I’m a kid who lost a dad so you need to hear it because one day it might be your kid who’s learned it, and by then it will be too late.
More than anything, they’re going to miss the ordinary days.
They’re going to miss those brown-paper bag days, the days that drone on and on and you kind wish you could fast forward because they’re all so much the same. They’re going to miss the days you thought didn’t matter.
Turns out, those are the days that matter the most.
You know those soccer tournaments you manage to make it to? Those are important. So are the graduations and the weddings and everything in between.
But they are not the most important thing.
What is most important is all the countless minutes filled with nothing much but you and them and the span of time between waking and sleeping when you say and do the mundane things that make them feel loved and important and a part of you.
Anybody can show up at a wedding.
But your daughter is going to remember how you talked to her at breakfast.
Anybody can cheer at a playoff game.
But your son is going to remember what you did when you came home from work.
Anybody can drive the family to church on Sunday.
But your kid is going to remember what you said when he messed up, whether or not you showed up, and if you lived up to all you said you believed.
Your daughter will think of you on Christmas, it’s true, but she will miss you most on some Monday morning when the sky is perfect for flying and the smell of an engine makes her think of all the hours she spent in the hangar, watching you work. She will think of you when a wood stove crackles and someone makes popcorn late at night. It will be stale jelly beans and Risk games and badly-sung hymns and mustached smiles and grey-blue eyes that search out the hurt and motorcycle roars and coffee first thing in the morning that will make her wish she could bring you back, just for a second.
It’s easy to think it’s enough to be there for the big stuff. But I’m here to tell, dads, it’s not the big stuff she’ll remember, and it’s not the big stuff she’ll miss.
It’s the ordinary stuff, the stuff you never thought twice about because it was just life.
Hear me, dads — that’s the part of your life that is everything to her.
I think of it today because it’s Father’s Day, one of those red-letter days when dads get new ties and handmade paperweights and everyone is together because they’re supposed to be, and it’s good.
But tomorrow is Monday. There’s Wheat Chex for breakfast and groggy kids to get up and a long day before you come home again. It’s tempting to slide a bit because there’s a good show on TV and you’re tired and after all, you just made a memory on Sunday, if you believe holidays make the best memories.
I’m telling you, they don’t.
Give your kids Monday. Give them Tuesday too. Give them all the ordinary minutes you can, dads. Because one day, you’ll be gone, and those are exactly the minutes they’ll miss the most.
They will miss your ordinary.
Give it to them.