Looking for a Father

The last Father’s Day card I sent to my father came back to me, returned with the other personal effects recovered from the campsite he and my stepmother shared along an Arctic river.

I’d talked to them on Father’s Day that year on a satellite phone when they called after dinner. I’d been sitting on the porch of my boyfriend’s house in Seattle, where we had just finished grilling salmon with his family. My dad and his wife sat in canvas chairs on the side of the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and recounted seeing wolves and sheep and aufeis. They shared a dehydrated meal of black beans for dinner, having the time of their lives.

A week later they were dead, killed by a grizzly that came into their campsite and attacked their tent.

I started looking for fathers then. It was not a conscious search, but a leaning in to older men who seemed to me a little bit funny, a little bit thoughtful, a little bit kind, a little bit wise. Men who might ask me a question about who I was, or how I was doing. To these men I asked one or two more questions than I might have. I looked at them a little longer around a dinner table.

I realized what I was doing when I glimpsed the limits to connection in their eyes. Small things reminded me that they were not my father, that I was asking too much, even secretly; small things that reminded me of my delusion that anyone might substitute for my father. I felt a twinge of misplaced betrayal. Then I had a jolt of loss again, the understanding that my dad would never be replaced, that I would, really, have to learn to live without him.
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