Some 25 years ago, the mother of a high school acquaintance succumbed to cancer. I barely knew the grieving guy, but had a little crush on him anyway. And when I heard about his loss, I knew I needed to reach out to him.
When I went to make a Shiva call — a visit to a Jewish house of mourning — I tried to offer words of comfort, to let him know that I understood what he was going through. After all, I, too, had lost a parent. I will never know if my words made sense, or if they were as clumsy as they sounded coming out of my mouth. What I do know is that in that trying to find the words to connect with someone who had lost a parent, I realized I could do no such thing.
You see, my father was diagnosed with cancer when I was three months old and died shortly after my fourth birthday. I can count the memories I have of my father on one hand. I am grateful for those few memories I have, but they have become distorted with time. When I try to recollect them, the visual in my mind’s eye is blurred with a gauze-like effect. What I’m left with are flickering vignettes.
I remember my father setting up a pair of red toy phones. They needed batteries and in those days, that meant a toy was very special. I remember the hazy sunlight as my dad stood at the end of the driveway and I at the mouth of the garage. I remember when we both put a headset to our ears how delighted I was that I could hear him through the phone from so far away. I recall that I giggled, but not his voice or what he said.
I remember him carrying me on his shoulders into a dentist’s office, and how tall I felt from that vantage point. I remember the baby blue cotton jacket with tiny, colorful characters that I was wearing that day.
I remember being in a convenience store where there was a woman dressed in a muumuu with a monkey on her shoulder. I will never know if I made up this particular memory, because the one person who could clear up the confusion is dead.
Without knowing my father through eyes beyond that of a four-year-old, I can make him whatever I want him to be. He will probably always be the perfect parent. All my good traits come from him. He would have always been on my side and he would have had my back.
And so, when someone I know loses a parent, I can’t honestly say I understand. What I lost was intangible — an idea, a dream, a whisper of a parent. It’s not the same as losing a parent who was a constant presence throughout your childhood.
I’m not sad that tomorrow I will have a new and unfamiliar void in my life; I’m sad that the void I feel is all I have ever known. I am mourning a past that never was and a father I will never know.
Cara Paiuk is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Kveller and The Huffington Post, among other publications. A native of Vancouver, she lives with her husband and three young children in Connecticut.