My girls will never know my father. They'll never hear him make up the words to "I Feel Pretty." They'll never catch him sneaking thirds of Blue Bell's pralines and cream ice cream late at night. He'll never send them off to school quoting the Village Schoolmaster by Oliver Goldsmith... "And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew that one small head could carry all he knew."
As his daughter, and one of the select few charged with keeping his memory alive, that's a tough pill to swallow.
He was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer when I was six months pregnant but waited until I was full-term to tell me in case the news might cause complications my daughter would pay for the rest of her life. That was my dad: Looking out for his girls, right up until the very end.
By the time my daughter arrived in September, my dad was already on borrowed time. Yet he hung on long enough for us to spend her first Christmas together. We said goodbye exactly one month later.
When my second child was born following a traumatic labor and delivery Christmas day two years later, I knew my father was present yet again as they rushed my pure white, limp, tiny girl to the NICU. Despite the chaos around me, I felt a sense of peace as I imagined her getting to those pearly gates and my dad, JJ, stopping her in her tracks with a twinkle in those Irish eyes.
"Silly girl, you need to go back to your mama," I believe he told her. She listened, and doctors tell me she is still a legend in the NICU.
Now at 5 months old, just starting to smile and giggle, I see his same mischievous twinkle in her eyes—perhaps a lasting gift from their encounter.
But for all the beautiful, small ways it feels like he's still here, there are other times when his loss hits me all over again.
I felt that again this past week when I was asked to emcee The Relay for Life benefiting the American Cancer Society. My 2-year-old and I decorated a luminaria bag the night before, one of hundreds that would line the track during the 12-hour walk. We painted an Irish flag on one side, a Texas flag on the other. We pasted on a picture of JJ holding her in her swaddle after her Christening, one of him walking me down the aisle in what she called "Mommy's princess dress." She added some gold paint, of course, to "make it shiny."
When we finished them, I told her JJ was up in the sky, in heaven—and she nodded, looked up into my misty eyes and said, "We need to buy a ladder."
The following day felt like a ladder. I felt closer to him than I've felt since he left. I shared his story in front of hundreds of survivors, not even meaning to share as much as I did. When those survivors took their victory lap, my sweet child blew them kisses.
As we released doves and watched them "fly in the sky to JJ," my daughter's affection for a man she'll never remember touched me, maybe even healed me.
My dad may not walk this earth with us today, but I will do for my girls as he did for me: I will look out for them up until my very last breath by trying to create as beautiful of a world as I can—but also taking them to the tough stuff.
We'll go to the hospital to see a sick friend, the funeral of a beloved relative, the food bank to help a complete stranger... I want them to know life isn't all splash pads and puppet shows. There will be pain; There will be sorrow; There will be grief.
But there is love when you look for it, especially when you look toward the sky.