I came home from running errands one day to find my daughter and my husband napping in what she calls “The Big Bed.” To her, our bed is a second home; the place to land during thunderstorms and after nightmares. That afternoon, she was splayed across his body, with her head on his belly. His arm curled around her. She gripped his fingers in her hand, as she did when she was a baby. They reminded me of bears, hibernating in the musty-sweet warmth of a cave, oblivious to the snow-cloaked world outside.
When I saw them, I bit my lip to keep from crying. A part of me wanted to crawl next to them, nestling into their bodies, but another part of me resisted. They were perfect as they were.
Every time I think I’ve experienced all the emotions I have to feel, a new one surprises me. Seeing my daughter and husband, I felt saudade, a new-to-me Portuguese word that expresses a combination of joy and grief. Its closest English equivalent is the word “bittersweet,” but saudade gets at the feeling of longing and melancholy for a thing that has been irrevocably lost. The word is angled around a concept I felt keenly all my life: that of incompleteness.
I grew up without a father. He left my mother when I was a baby, and then we left him behind in Vietnam a few years later, so that we could immigrate to America — and so she could escape the memory of their riotous marriage. I have one photo of him, given to me by my mother a few years ago on my 30th birthday. Before that, there was nothing but stories that changed with each telling, with each narrator. Sometimes, he was a handsome scholar with a tragic addiction. Other times he was a monster. To me, he was a ghost.
Fourteen years ago, my husband and I got engaged on New Year’s Eve, a few hours before the year turned. Afterward, I excitedly made calls to my family and friends, ignoring the fact that it was nearly midnight. Everyone indulged me with sleepy joy, asking questions I couldn’t answer about the location of the wedding and the date. I laughed, saying each time, “I don’t know! I don’t know!”
Then a friend asked, “So, who’s walking you down the aisle?”
And inside of me, I felt that familiar twist, the one I got every time we made family trees in class, or when I visited a friend for dinner and saw how her dad teased her over mac and cheese. The times when I pretended I was too mature for father-daughter dances, or when I gave my mother a Father’s Day card, telling her, “You’re the only dad I need.” The loss of an absent father is complicated. It doesn’t always dominate, the way grief over a death might. It’s something you trip over, often when you are least expecting it.
On the phone, I tried to laugh off my friend’s question. “Maybe I’ll just walk myself down the aisle! Who needs a dad anyway?”
In the story of my life, I tell myself I had no father. That’s true, and it’s not true. My father isn’t present, but there were countless men who stepped in. They were the stand-in fathers.
There was my grandfather, who drove me to school every morning for years, slipping me a dollar for my lunch at the curb. He made scrambled eggs and salvaged toys for me from garage sales and took my side in every argument I had, often refusing to speak with my mother or grandmother until they apologized to me. A group of neighborhood kids once asked, “Is that your dad?” It was easier to say yes.
One uncle used to let me play on his Game Boy when I was over at his house. I’d sprawl on the couch and groove the Tetris blocks into their proper places. He’d look over my shoulder, pointing to empty spaces. “Quick! Drop it there.” He’d toss me PopTarts from his snack stash.
Another uncle took me to Disney World with his own kids. He bought me a burger and fries at the diner in Tomorrowland and took my picture with Mickey Mouse. For my birthday, he made me a giant sign with my favorite Disney princess on it.
In high school, my boyfriend’s dad spent hours washing and waxing my convertible — an old ’80s junker my mom surprised me with — until it gleamed. He stood back, pleased with his work. “She’s perfect now,” he said, patting the hood. It felt like something a father would do.
And there were the teachers who gave me advice about college and careers. The ones who read every terrible draft of my stories and told me I’d be a writer, even when I had no idea what that meant. My orchestra director gave me a copy of an Anne Lamott book on my graduation day, along with an inscription about the potential he saw for my future. My high school history teacher and his wife visited me during my freshman year of college, taking a long detour into Chicago on a road trip to take me out to dinner. Afterward, he emailed me a story he wrote, modeled after Hemingway’s choppy style because he knew it would make me laugh. We visited Thao in Chicago. The BLT was good and reminded me of my youthful summers in Michigan. The world might be collapsing around us, but we have friendship.
My stepfather sometimes took me fishing. He picked out a rod that fit my arms and helped me haul an angelfish from the water. Afterward, he snapped a picture of me holding it. Decades later, I spotted that picture propped up on his desk. We have a complicated relationship, but now, when I see him kneeling down in front of my daughter with an unguarded smile, I think of how natural he is as a grandfather.
At a family wedding a few years ago, I sewed my daughter’s dress, a pink number with layers of tulle. Though my father-in-law is not a terribly expressive man, he spent the entirety of the reception exclaiming to friends, “She made that! Can you believe it?” His pride shining my way, lighting me up inside.
These men — and others I know I have forgotten — were my stand-in fathers. Some are a forever-part of my life. Others winked out like stars, but they left the impression of their brilliant love behind. They, along with my mother, filled in the blanks. With such love, I am not empty, even if I feel that way sometimes.
When my husband and I got married, our wedding date coincided with Father’s Day, as it will again this year. I bought cards for every father in attendance at our wedding, as they were putting aside their day of celebration for mine. I inscribed a note in each card and left them at the fathers’ dinner settings.
Thank you for being here.
My grandfather ended up walking me down the aisle. Before the wedding, he stayed with me as I was getting my makeup on. Amid the flurry of bridesmaid dresses, spilled Champagne, and so many excited bodies whooshing in and out of the room, my grandfather sat on the bed, a quiet island. He held a slip of paper in his hands and mouthed something over and over again to himself.
Finally, in a moment of calm, I turned to him and asked what he was doing. He blushed a little and told me, “I’m practicing what I need to say when the officiant asks who gives away the bride in marriage.”
“What will you say, Ông Ngoại?”
“I’ll say: We all do.”
And for a moment, I saw them standing there: all the dads of my present and past, in a beaming circle.
This Father’s Day, I’ll be celebrating my husband for all that he is to my daughter. For the early wake-ups, the cleaning of the vomit, the dance parties, and the love that just does not quit. I’ll also raise a toast to my stand-in fathers, some of whom are long gone from my life. I’ll remember the ways they each expressed care for me, doling out a piece of their hearts, just because they wanted to. Because they knew I needed it. Those scraps saved me.
And in a secret part of my soul, I’ll also be sitting with my saudade. Thinking of the dad-who-never-was, and how much we missed. Wondering, as I always do, what it would mean to be with him on Father’s Day. Saudade, too, is part of the story I tell myself. It is, perhaps, the thread that keeps everything together.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, is forthcoming in 2023 from HarperCollins. She has also written for Cup of Jo about books and motherhood.
(Photo by Erin Brant/Stocksy.)