Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., author of Our Fathers, Ourselves, talks about having her own family learning that grief is a growing experience.
When I was 3½, I went to sleep in our quiet Philadelphia suburb with a loving dad down the hall. The next morning, I woke up fatherless. He had died of a heart attack during the night, leaving behind my mother, my sisters and me.
We never talked about my father when I was growing up. My mother removed him from our lives like a surgeon removes a suspicious mass. No pictures. No loving stories around the dinner table. Questions about him were unceremoniously cut off: “He’s gone. We have to move on.” I’ve often wondered if the loss was too painful for her to talk about. More likely, she meant exactly what she said. She was, in all things, a very practical woman. But during my childhood, I imagined that my father wasn’t really gone at all. He lived in the elm tree outside my window. At night, he sat in its branches, watching me sleep. I would tell him about a book I’d read, a math grade I’d received, a spelling contest I’d won. He always listened with pride.
From my earliest years, I knew how it felt to be an outsider. At a time when most families included two parents, I endured countless small ceremonies—the father-daughter dance, assignments to make Father’s Day cards—that sharpened my isolation. I remember school bus rides, my forehead pressed against the window, looking into houses where daughters waited for dads who always came home. I felt like a traveler in a foreign land, the land of dads: I was welcomed but never a native.
Sometimes, my outsider status came like a slap in the face. My mother hit a deer with her car and arrived to pick me up at school late and shaken to the edge of hysteria. I thought, This kind of thing doesn’t happen when dads are driving—and if it does, they don’t fall apart. At a neighborhood dinner party, my friend’s father became a bit too attentive to my very attractive mother. His wife noticed. Listening to their angry, hushed voices from the kitchen, I felt embarrassed and vulnerable. That wouldn’t have happened if my dad had been at the table.
Men came into and out of our life. Some stayed for a time. Some didn’t. Most meant little more to me than the man who showed up every Thursday to cut the grass. My mother even married one of them. He was kind but in a way that seemed negotiated, as if the package deal had included me and my sisters along with the wife and the house. He didn’t try to be more than he was. One morning, he, too, was gone. My mother never said why, and we never asked. That’s how things worked in our family.