Magic To Do

Starless and fatherless, a dark water.
— Sylvia Plath

Today is my forty-seventh year without my father on Father’s Day. Recollections of him are sketchy at best. I remember certain events; going with him to the drug store; walking hand in hand into Baskin Robbins to get ice cream—chocolate chip for him, French vanilla for me, or maybe it was the other way around?

Mostly, I remember riding in the backseat of the Ford Galaxy with the smell of his fresh cigarette lit from the red hot spot of the car lighter. He loved taking my brother and I to church on summer Sunday mornings then to a Tiger baseball game to watch from the bleachers.

He played the piano everyday and embarrassed me more than once singing in front of friends. He put ketchup on eggs, loved black licorice (me too) and heated the kitchen in the morning with the oven door open. His smile went from ear to ear. Some of the physical features I remember of him I see in my son and oldest nephew.

I inherited from my father his bad feet, good hair, and a love of literature and books. And that’s about the extent of what I know for sure.

I was ten when my father died, and I thought I was the only kid on the planet with a dead parent. Seriously, I didn’t feel grief—or what I know grief to feel like now—I was embarrassed by his death. Mortified. Every kid in my neighborhood, every kid in my school, seemed to have two parents. One of mine just happened to have a diseased heart, and it gave out one morning the first week of summer vacation. From then on my brother and I were the purple two in the midst of bright yellow happy kids.

So I was shocked by the statistic that one in nine lose a parent to death before the age of 19. There is a tribe out there I hadn’t known of, the other wounded kids that grew up without a mom or dad. And some of them are famous. Quite a few, actually, with magic to do. Yes, the idea of filling that profound emptiness with art, music, sportsmanship, public service . . . well, Madonna has famously said she wouldn’t be who she is if her mother had not died when she was five. We’re altered by our circumstances in so many ways, but the most important is that missing link to our future.

Years ago I started making a list of those in the public eye who lost a parent at a young age. I think one of the common threads to the following list is the idea of creating something bigger with their lives—as if they were trying to prove themselves, to make their dead parent proud. Maybe. I call it Magic to Do—take that empty nothing in your soul where your mother or father should be and fill it with something special. Something that fills the deep dark hole of loss. Something you’ve come to love and that will love you back in lieu of that missing parent.

Julia Roberts lost her father at age 7.
Mariska Hargitay lost her mother, Jayne Mansfield, at age 4, on the same day my father died.
Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, lost her father at 9.
Naomi Watts, 7 when her father died.
John Lennon, lost his mother when he was 17.
Paul McCartney, his mom when he was 14.
Dave Matthews, 10 when his father died.
Tony Bennett, 10 when his father died.
Jon Hamm, his mother died when he was 10.
Leonard Cohen, 9 when his father died.

And others:
Billy Crystal, James Wood, Caroline Kennedy, Rosie O’Donnell, Bono, Anne Heche, Tim Allen, Angela Lansbury, Loretta Lynn, Cate Blanchett, Amy Tan, Aretha Franklin, Martin Sheen, Michael Richards, 5-Cent, Larry King, BB King, Mary Gordon, Billy Bob Thorton, Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman, Moby, Drew Carey, Sherry Lansing, Gabrielle Reece, Daniel Day Lewis, David Geffen, Robert Redford, Dennis Miller, Sonia Braga, Carly Simon, Sammy Sosa, Rosalynn Carter, Eddie Murphy, Portia DeRossi, Tracy Ullman, John Goodman, Maya Rudolph, Billie Jo Armstrong, and the list goes on and on and on.

I would have loved to have known there were other people out there, people older, wiser, seemingly happy and successful, that had been through what I had been through. I wouldn’t have felt so different, so purple, so alone and scared that things wouldn’t work out for me.

After the embarrassment of my father’s early death wore off, the dark water came on slowly, like how the deep end of the ocean creeps up right about the time when you figure out you’re lost at sea. It marked the end of the essence of my childhood and the realization that life is fragile and fleeting and people you thought would be there forever are suddenly gone and never ever coming back.

I wrote a whole book about what that kind of loss does and feels like to a young girl growing up with that emptiness echoing inside her. I watch my husband with my two daughters and I know all I’ve missed. How he’s taught them about men and respect and family. How he’s shown, by example, the importance of hard work and saving money and living a life free of debt and too many things and few regrets. And, more importantly, of love and affection and only accepting someone in your inner circle who appreciates you. He passed down to them, too, the Rah Rah gene, the one that apparently shriveled up inside me when I stopped going to Tiger games with my dad.

I haven’t heard my father’s voice in 47 years. It doesn’t exist anywhere, not even in my dreams. I envy kids today who, unfortunately, experience such a loss but, fortunately, have the social and digital mediums available to keep their parent’s voice alive, to hear their laugh, to hear them sing. Oh, what I would give to be embarrassed by that again.

So, if you’re lucky enough to spend today with your dad, hug him tighter, or call and tell him how much he means to you, because one day his voice will only exist on a voicemail or home movie and you’ll miss his whispered I love you, or the laugh that says I’m so glad you’re my kid.

Time it was and what a time it was.
A time of innocence, a time of confidences.
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left of you.
Simon & Garfunkel

mellisa fitzwilliams