On my right forearm, the inner aspect, where only I can see it, I have a tattoo. It is a north star. I got it after my dad died. He was my north star. Always there. Always present.
Throughout my life his presence is what I most remember and most cherish. When I was about four, and sick with pneumonia, in the hospital in an oxygen tent, I did not notice his presence until it was gone. I was absorbed by a puzzle he had brought. It was a boy sitting by a stream with a fishing rod. At some point I looked up from the puzzle and realized he was gone. I don’t know if he said goodbye because I had been focused on that puzzle. I was devastated. I had not seen him go or said good bye or thanked him for the puzzle. I had missed him and it broke my four year old heart.
When I was a bit older or maybe following the pneumonia I suffered from nighttime coughing. In retrospect it was probably a form of asthma. My father would put me in the bathroom, shut the door and turn the shower on until the whole room was filled with steam. We would sit there together deep in the night, in the quiet, save for my coughing, until I was settled and then he would carry me back to bed.
Years later I was rebellious and angry, a troubled teen, he would sit in my room at night trying to reach me. Sometimes he talked. Sometimes he sat. Once, I locked myself in the bathroom and refused to come out. He stood outside the door, frustrated and in pain and threatened to break the door down to reach me. He never gave up on me. He was always there, waiting.
I had knee surgery the summer after my first year in college. He sat in my hospital room every day and read. His constant presence the balm to my discomfort. When I graduated from medical school it was my dad who accompanied me across the country to Colorado. We drove together stopping in at steak joints and ice cream parlors, sneaking my dog Jesse into motel rooms at night. And during my residency in Emergency Medicine, when I was in a bike accident he flew out and stayed with me, once again, sitting by my side, the comfort of his presence all that I needed, my jaw wired shut, my body cut and bruised. He never hovered. He was just there.
Eventually I moved back to Boston, married, and had a baby. We moved to a house down the street from where he worked. He would come over on my days off and have lunch, peanut butter and jelly, or tuna. He always brought his own. He came wearing the Jamaica Plain cap I had bought him, or a BMC sweatshirt from my work. We would talk about work, or parenting or whatever might be troubling me, or sometimes just sit in comfortable silence.
And when my dad was dying I stayed with him. My brothers came from their distant homes. We took turns being with him, sitting by his bed. At the end I lay on his bed and held his hand entwining our fingers in silence. It was the least I could do.
Now I turn my palm up and see the inky star etched in my skin and miss him. His presence was a gift. His absence is keenly felt but he is my north star and I hold him present still.