In January 1987, my wife of 12 years died from pancreatic cancer. This left me with the responsibility of raising my 8-year-old daughter alone. After the shock of my wife's death, I became aware that I knew nothing about raising a daughter by myself. We had raised my wife's two children and my two sons, and they were all living outside of the home.
During the grieving process, I sometimes wondered if the wrong parent had died. Mothers raise daughters. Fathers are supposed to financially support the family. Mothers are the nurturers; it had been that way in my family. Now, I had to learn a new role, one I hadn't anticipated. I never knew what being a parent was about until I had to do it all myself.
I believe my daughter's greatest fear initially was being left alone. She had already lost her mother. Would she lose me as well? Who would take care of her then? On one occasion she announced, "Dad, I know what you can get me for Christmas, and it won't cost a cent. You can find me a new mom." It was too soon for me to consider taking such a step, but her question helped me to understand the depth of her need. She was hurting and she was scared.
After the initial shock, denial and bargaining phases had run their courses, we worked through the lingering anger and depression and started to put our lives back together. When she was in elementary school, I became a "Room Father." (When it was my turn to bring cookies, I could buy the dough in rolls, cut it into individual cookies and bake them.) I helped coach her softball team. I encouraged her involvement in church activities so she would be spiritually grounded. I enrolled her in charm school and we joined ballroom dancing classes together.
For cultural exposure, I involved her in our American Indian heritage. We attended and danced at Indian powwows. I signed her up for summer basketball camps and attended the awards ceremony at the end. I tried to be involved by balancing work and family. I passed up a job at a local university because of the position's frequent out-of-state travel.
So many memories: the first date, graduations, basketball games at the arena, the first formal dance, her first prom dress, learning how to ride a bike, her Indian dancing. These things I will always treasure. The hard times: the day she broke her arm playing basketball. The death of her older sister five years ago.
My daughter is 23 years old now. Like any parent, I didn't know it would turn out OK, until it did. It boiled down to this: Ultimately, the best gift I could give my daughter was my time, my love and my encouragement. Daughters need their fathers no matter what their age, and it's never too late to start.