During the 2008 presidential election, a pundit speculated about why Barack Obama’s autobiography was titled Dreams of My Father. The article implied that, in so titling his book, he wasn’t showing proper respect or sufficient appreciation for his mother, the parent who had raised him mostly on her own. I remember thinking at the time that the person who wrote the article must have been raised in a two-parent household.
My father died when I was 16. He wasn’t there when I graduated from high school or college. My performance in my first musical, a community theatre production of West Side Story, came and went without him. So did my performance in a professional production of My Fair Lady, many years later. He wasn’t there to walk me down the aisle when I got married, and he was many years gone when I started my clothing design business.
My mother, of course, was there for all of these events. She has been a constant and loving presence in my life and has done an amazing job of being both mother and father to me and my siblings. I’m blessed to have had such a mother, and yet the “what-ifs” surrounding my dad will always linger.
Would we have liked the same movies, the same authors? Would we have attended the ballet together and talked about our favorite dancers later over coffee? Would he have been proud of the way that I negotiated my first new car purchase? Would he have liked my (now ex-) husband?
This endless loop of questions doesn’t mean that the parent who is still here isn’t appreciated. It’s just that the parent who is present is a known quantity—unlike the absent parent, who is a puzzle that will never be solved. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a parent in his or her life, especially at a young age, carries a never-to-be-satisfied void inside. The absent parent is forever wrapped in mystery.
So I understand Barack Obama titling his memoir as he did. Like a dream, my father hovers at the edges of my mind and my heart, always with me but always elusive. And though I am deeply grateful for the mother who lovingly raised me, I will always wonder what my life might have been like if my dad had been there, too.