What does it mean to be a father? 

My friend Ari Poholek asked me this question on the phone after losing his two sons in one day, in different, tragic ways. 

“Now, I’m just going to be a bystander,” he said. “Pascal’s friends will go on and have all these wonderful experiences. How am I going to go on? That all is lost to me. Pascal never got the opportunity to do that.”

I inhaled deeply. I knew these thoughts. They have haunted me often the last 19 years.

In 2001, when I was 17 years old, my dad died, I told Ari. It was also sudden, and I remember my own racing mind going through all the life events suddenly out of my reach. 

“I get no more memories with him,” I remember thinking. “He won’t see me graduate high school or college.” Then, almost immediately, “Oh. He won’t be there to walk me down the aisle. Oh, my kids (if I have any) will be down one grandparent.” 

And finally, “I’ll never get to see him old and grey as a grandpa.” That one kicked me in the gut. How he was when he died is how he will always remain in my memory, frozen as the silly, quiet jokester who loved fast cars, new technology and my mom, sister and me, deeply.

Ari and I cried on the phone together, empathetic mirror-images in the horrible parent-child loss experience.

Every Father’s Day, I come up short, feeling like I no longer have a “legitimate” right to celebrate, and like the love has nowhere to go. It’s weird, I know, but it just happens. The day feels heavy, and while I’ll call my grandpa, my uncles and my mom’s husband, the void of not being able to call the one person I really want to talk to often gets to me.

Willow Belden’s art captures the loneliness and pain of Mother’s Day after losing her mom. The caption reads: “To everyone who has lost a mother too soon: it’s ok if today was for crying.” WILLOW BELDEN/Out There Podcast

A friend of mine who lost her mom painted a pair of lonely palm trees on this last Mother’s Day and said, “To everyone who has lost a mother too soon: it’s ok if today was for crying.”

It struck me deeply. I remembered years of just crying through Father’s Day and his birthday, wanting simultaneously to acknowledge all that he was and to hide until the day was over. I remembered years I would try to numb myself to the day, to not deal with the barrage of thoughts. And, grateful, I also realized that the Father’s Days had become a lot less painful as the years had passed.

“It doesn’t get easier, per se, but you get better at coping,” I told Ari. “At least for me, it has helped to find ways to channel my grief, to make him proud. That, and I make sure to live my life fully, because he didn’t get to.”

That’s actually how I ended up in the Keys. 

In 2015, 14 years after I lost my dad, I was an unhappy lawyer. A silent, deep pain in my heart reminded me every day that there had to be more to life than just grinding and working toward a “tomorrow” that very well might not be there. I quit, did some soul searching (and a lot of scuba diving), and eventually applied to an Instagram ad for an internship at the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo. 

Two years later, I’m happily still here in our slice of paradise, doing what I love and surrounded by people just as obsessed with the oceans as I am.

And I have to credit losing my dad for that. My loss became my gain. It taught me that life actually can be very short. It showed me how to make a plan B and C when A kicks you in the face. And, it afforded me the insight and courage to pick up and just go, without any real plan but with an undeniable gut feeling that something might be really, really good.

And so, on this fatherless Father’s Day, I just wanted to take a moment to celebrate my dad, wherever he is, and to thank him for still teaching me the most important lesson of my life, even in his absence: life is too short to be anything but happy.

Love you, Dada, and miss you.

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Tiff Duong is a self-made mermaid who loves all things cheesy (romantic and dairy) and thrives in the 3 am hour. She believes in leaving it all on the field and has never met a (mis)adventure she didn't love.