Dad was enlightened. He knew that every small moment mattered. He was silly, too. He made funny faces at me in every situation. He told stories of sailing to China on container ships, and he practiced Tai Chi every morning. He knew how to engage my creativity, spreading butcher paper all over the living room floor so I could draw on and on and on. His collection of string instruments and the bright, whimsical canvases he painted in oil decorated our home. We danced and sang to Ry Cooder and David Lindley and ate slices of juicy red watermelon on the deck. He let me eat dessert first and play with worms and roly polies in the mud. When I turned 12, he taught me to drive a car. Anything I “had to have” he’d buy, and he didn’t mind if I dipped my finger in his wine to see what it tasted like.

Dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was 16. He told me on a Sunday morning sitting on a bench downtown like we always did. I couldn’t listen to him. OK, he has cancer, I thought. So go fix it. I didn’t even consider the possibility of his death. It never entered my mind. He tried Eastern medicine first; it helped, but not enough, and one day he ended up hospitalized.

He later told me he’d been staring out at the sky and he saw it fill with blackbirds flying above until the sky blacked out. He had a glimpse into what it might be like right at death since he was supposed to die. I knew that was right, because when I saw him on life support, I knew his body WAS dead and machines were keeping all of his systems going. His whole body jerked up and flopped back down as air was pumped into his lungs.

When Dad gained consciousness, it was time for intensive chemotherapy and radiation. His body weakened. One day as we walked, he gripped my arm for support.

At that moment, the sky fell down on me.

I could hardly comprehend that this man, whom I wholly regarded as the strongest man in the world, could possibly need my help to walk.

Another day, Dad hadn’t expected me to come home, and he was suffering terribly. I blocked this day almost completely out of my memory. The only horrifying images I can recall are how skinny he looked in just his underwear, no hair, no beard, and his anguished expression. I don’t remember anything else. I don’t know if I helped him, if I left, or anything at all.

Dad died at the hospital in the morning during senior week. I was home. Two days later I returned my textbooks to the school. They were so heavy. Then I walked at graduation and started my summer job and left for college.

Nothing made sense. I yearned to beg or bargain, but I could not. There was no more Dad. But he was my world. So there was no more world.

Sometimes I cried, but I tried very hard not to. My grief was so terrible, I couldn’t let the tears begin. If I did, my sobs were so strong they choked me so I couldn’t breathe.

So I know.

I know how important a dad is to a little girl. I know he personifies strength, safety, and the whole world’s foundation.

I know his presence means all is right and balanced in the world.

I know his existence means a girl is loved and adored and somebody’s princess. Somebody cares when she cries, even if that cry isn’t about something “important”. Somebody will take away her tears no matter why they fall.

I know without a dad, the world is scary and there aren’t any walls around the city. There are only deep, dark woods, and I’ve been in those woods.

Day-to-day, I take care of the parenting. I do breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I do baths and bedtime. My own background is in child development, so I come up with the parenting models we follow. Maybe it looks like I “do it all”. Maybe you feel like you have less to give. You never had a father, so maybe you don’t know which gaps from your own childhood you’re meant to fill.

But I do. And never for one second would I say our daughter doesn’t need you like oxygen.

A father’s role is unique and irreplaceable. A father has everything to give. And I know it better than anyone because I lost it.

Elisa Cinelli

Elisa is a loving wife and mother in San Francisco. A housewife by day and a writer by night, she somehow finds time for her dual passions of vinyasa yoga and reading Hans Christian Andersen in a bubble bath.