They will tell you to find joy in your memories. This will start immediately in the sympathy cards that wish you this kind of solace. So, yes, you may get out your photo albums of her first year and a half of life and show her how proud he was in that photo where he holds her as a newborn. He is tired from late-night diaper changes and feedings but beaming in the full-length mirror he catches the photo in. Or the one where he is in bed with his eyes closed and she is crawling on him as a toddler touching his facial hair early in the morning. Or the one at her first birthday party where he nervously looks on as she eats all of the icing off of her cupcake.
You may tell her stories, old stories now, of things he did. “He used to sing this little song about peanut butter and jelly that he made up when he was little.” You will sing it while you make her sandwich. “He used to lift you up on his legs and fly you forward as he lay on the floor on his back.” “I used to sit at the piano with him and he’d tell me to play just one note over and over and he’d play the most beautiful music around it. He would’ve done that with you too.” She will look strangely wistful for such a young child.
You may thread him throughout her life without her even knowing it. When she loses her very first baby tooth, the tooth fairy will bring a large coin, a silver dollar someone gave you on your wedding day. Her 100 Day project in kindergarten will be 100 punched-out butterflies of paper in different patterns she picks out glued onto a giant piece of posterboard. One butterfly, though, will be punched from a copy of his old sheet music — his handwritten pencil music notes on wings. The first sporting event she ever goes to will be his favorite British soccer team. You will religiously watch the World Cup games every four years, rooting for his homeland, Korea, of course.
You may visit the cemetery and let her decorate it with flowers. You may buy her hot chocolate to make it more fun, even though it’s summer. You may do the balloons; yes, they’re bad for the environment, but they’re all we’ve got sometimes. You may eat his favorite foods together — Korean fried chicken, burgers, or Korean barbecue, and you’ll drink his favorite beer, Boddington’s — and make a toast. You’ll tuck her in with the floppy stuffed dog animal that he bought her when she was four months old. “He’s so worn and old,” she’ll say, hugging him.
You may want to post a photo on social media like everyone else. One to remind people you once had a partner in this thing called parenting and a damn good one at that.
You may want to post a photo on social media like everyone else. One to remind people you once had a partner in this thing called parenting and a damn good one at that. One to remind people that she once had a father who loved her so very much you can hear it in the lilt of his voice and in his laugh as she toddles off away from him in the videos he took. You can see it in the particular smile that was reserved for her. You know he’s gone, and yet you will feel surprised each year that there are no new pictures. You’ll try hard to find one that you haven’t posted yet.
You may notice all the ways she is just like him. Sometimes you tell her. He, too, picked the sesame seeds off his hamburger bun. When she corrects the note you’re singing, you’ll tell her how he had perfect pitch and could tell you the car horn you heard honking for hours from your Brooklyn apartment was a B flat. You’ll notice how with her eyes closed, her dark long lashes pointing straight down, you feel like you could be looking at his closed eyes. “He had really long eyelashes too,” you say.
But whatever you do, do not entertain for a moment, what it might have been like — all of those days, months, years, and milestones — if he had been here. I know your imagination is strong, but do not envision what it would be like if he walked in the door right now and she ran to him and hugged him. Do not picture her sitting at the piano with him while they play a funny tune together. Do not, I repeat, do not imagine what it would feel like to watch him tell her how pretty she looks getting ready for a dance or a party with friends. Do not imagine how his voice would sound now as they played a board game or kicked around a soccer ball. Stick with the familiar loss of things past. We all lose those. We’re well-practiced.
Because people are right: Eventually your memories can be a source of joy (though accessing that joy took a longer time than they suggested). Sure, you may feel sad because that specific joy with that specific person is in the past. It’s a moment frozen in time in an old photograph or video, but at least there’s evidence that it happened. It is what was.
What might have been is different. It has no edges or borders. Your memories will make you sigh. The lost future … will make you gasp.
Julia Cho is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Huffington Post, among other publications. She is currently working on a memoir. Follow her on Twitter at @studiesinhope and on Instagram at @studiesinhope.juliacho.