Father's Day without your father: A familiar ache

”Stay away from Facebook.”

That was the kind warning from a good friend in 2015 on a Sunday five months after my dad died.

A Sunday in June. Father’s Day.

Like another sunny Sunday six months after I lost my mom, I knew my social media feed would be packed with pictures of parents and kids brunching, biking, grinning, golfing.

Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day, can be an empty 24 hours for those who have lost their parents, a day you just try to survive. You can visit grave sites, do something large or small in their honor. But it doesn’t ease the pang. And there’s the sad reality: Many days can feel like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.

I know I am fortunate. My strong-willed, independent parents lived well into their 90s, mostly in good health. We traveled, we visited museums, we had dinners and, um, lively discourse. I have gobs of photos; I even thought to save voice mails.

Grief, though, can be a level playing field. I am convinced that no matter how old you are, when a parent dies a piece goes missing.

My sweet, effusive mom was in many ways my best friend. Even though most of my adult life I lived 25 minutes away, I talked to her almost every day on the phone, usually a 2 p.m. call. We pored over the letters — her extensive snail-mail correspondence to some people I had never even met — we went shopping, we dabbled in her garden, we talked.

My mother, whose faith meant everything, always had a prayer at the ready, was always concerned if I was getting enough sleep, was I doing something fun. And no matter what the situation: Was I eating?

She couldn’t wait to tell anyone who would listen, be it the receptionist at the doctor or the checker at the grocery story, about her doctor son and journalist daughter.

My father was the more reticent one with words pretty much always coated in caution. The first thing you do when you get to your hotel room is check the smoke detector to be sure it’s working. Your tires should be cold for at least an hour before you take the pressure. Never trust an auto mechanic: Make sure he really did change the oil.

When I moved into a new place he would be right over with a charley bar and a warning about those “second-story men.” Every October I could count on a reminder that when the leaves start spilling off the trees and it rains, the roads are slick.

One time he called to console me when I missed out on a promotion and told me emphatically to “go have a beer.” But don’t do it anywhere in the city that might be dangerous and be sure to take a cab.

A Father's Day tribute: Thanks, Dad
After my mom died, my dad and I took wobbly steps into the haze of our new normal. And then something amazing happened: He, too, became my best friend. We ran errands, we went on walks, we shared meals, we took little trips so my amateur photographer dad could scout out new photo subjects.                                           .

I saw a side of him I had never witnessed, perhaps the one my mom fell in love with. He had a deep appreciation for music that punctuated his life; he taught me to love opera. He had a good heart and a catalog of stories. He had a sly sense of humor, once putting an Obama bumper sticker on his car mainly to annoy the right-wingers he parked next to at church.

When touring the independent living condo he was going to move into at 93, we passed a bridge room filled with the bobbing heads of little silver-haired ladies playing cards. I immediately caught his eye and his ear. “Oh my God, these people are old,” he whispered.

Soon he was the one I called every day at 2.

After each of my parents died, well-intentioned people would direct me to the five stages of grief with an airy assurance I would cycle through and move on.

I felt guilty for awhile but then accepted it: There are some of us, maybe many of us, who don’t just move on. Yes, you get re-immersed in life, but the ache is always there, gnawing under the surface. A jagged edge that can cut through at a moment’s notice.

I often think what I would say if I saw them again. I think with my mom, it would be easy. I’d tell her how I covered the pope for my newspaper when he came to Washington, D.C.

With my dad, it’s a little tougher. But I’d probably tell him how I’ve been to three Puccini operas since he died. And, yes, in October I take it easy on the roads in the rain.

And that every day at 2 p.m., my heart still breaks, just a little.

Follow Miller on Twitter @susmiller

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