What I Wish My Little Sister Got To Know About Her Dad Before He Died

Losing a parent feels insurmountable at any age. Our series helps you face it ― from the practical logistics to the existential questions about death and dying today.

For my family, July 24, 2005, was, and still is, the worst day of our lives.

In the early hours of that Sunday morning, my stepdad, Chris, died suddenly from a heart condition he didn’t know he had. He was 38 years old and seemingly healthy.

He left behind a wife, four kids, a mom, a dad, sisters, in-laws, nieces, nephews and friends, all of whom were blindsided by his death.

I’m the oldest of the four kids. Before Chris, my mom was married to my dad; they had two daughters: me and my sister, Courtney. My parents finalized their divorce when I was in kindergarten and later that year, my mom married Chris. They went on to have my brother, Austin, and later, my sister, Alex.

When Chris died, I was 16, Courtney 14. By that point, we had known him almost as long as we could remember. And as excruciating as it was to lose him, in retrospect, I do know how lucky we are that we had him in our lives for as long as we did — even if it wasn’t long enough. Many of my warmest, happiest and safest memories are from the Chris era.

Visiting Austin in the hospital after he was born on April 19, 1996 – which just so happened to be my mom and Chris’ first wedding anniversary. 

Austin was 9 when his dad died, old enough to remember how Chris would make pancakes on Saturday mornings or take him to the movies.

But Alex, who was 4, can’t remember anything about him. And that breaks my heart.

Sure, she knows certain bits and pieces about her dad ― like how they’d share Oreos and a glass of milk before bed or how he’d go berserk when the Philadelphia Eagles were losing ― but only because she’s heard us tell and retell these stories over the years.

Chris really was born to be a father — something I recognized from a young age. When I was 5, my mom recalls me telling her that Chris would make a great dad. “You knew how to pick ’em even then,” she later said.

For a while, I’ve wanted to write down the things, both big and small, that I wish Alex could have gotten to know about her dad, the kind of man he was and what he meant to me and others lucky enough to know him:

1. At 26 years old, Chris pursued Mom, a woman in the middle of a divorce with two young kids. For a lot of people that age, still enjoying the single, partying life, that would be too much baggage. But nope, not for Chris. He took on all this responsibility like it was no big deal. The older I get, the more I appreciate how special that was.

2. Though we never would have admitted it at the time, Chris was a cool dad. Courtney and I always liked it when he would drive us and our friends to the movies or pick us up from a school dance or a sleepover (side note: he was highly skilled when it came to tightly rolling up a sleeping bag). The fact that he was really tall, athletic and a good 10 years younger than a lot of the other parents didn’t hurt.

At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Chris was my go-to for shoulder rides. 
At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Chris was my go-to for shoulder rides. 

3. In fact, at one of my birthday parties in elementary school, a friend pulled me aside to let me know my stepdad was “so cute” — awkward information to receive and yet oddly flattering at the same time.

4. Chris was never too old to play with the kids. He was always down for boogie-boarding or building sand castles at the beach, making up games in the pool or taking us on the rollercoasters at Six Flags.

5. When he walked in through the door every night after work, you and Austin would excitedly shout “Dad!” I can’t imagine a better sound to come home to.

6. Though he knew nothing about girls clothes, your dad, bless his heart, took it upon himself to buy you a dress — a blue patchwork frock that looked a bit like something from “Little House on the Prairie.” Objectively, it wasn’t very cute. But the fact that he was so proud of himself for picking it out made it adorable.

Visiting Chris' family in Pittsburgh in 1994.
Visiting Chris’ family in Pittsburgh in 1994.

7. He used his middle finger to change the radio station or operate the CD player in the car — a quirk I definitely enjoyed teasing him about. Albums by the Counting Crows, Dave Matthews Band and Hootie and the Blowfish were all in heavy rotation.

8. He always went out of his way for his family. I remember one time Chris was coming down with the flu, but he peeled himself off the couch and went outside to play catch, just to cheer up his nephew who was having a bad day.

Then there was the time that Chris got up at the crack of dawn on his own birthday to wait in line for tickets to some tour in Washington, D.C., that we wanted to do, while the rest of us were still asleep at the hotel.

My mom and Chris on a family vacation in 2003. 
My mom and Chris on a family vacation in 2003. 

9. Chris showed me the kind of partner and parent I hope to be someday. I don’t remember much about my parents being together. And the memories I do have aren’t happy ones. Yet, somehow, I didn’t develop a cynical or pessimistic view of marriage. I think that’s because what Mom and Chris had was that good — so good that it overrode whatever unhealthy relationship dynamics I saw modeled before, and replaced them with much better examples.

They were husband and wife, but more than that, they were really good friends. Equal partners. Teammates. And you could tell that they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

10. He was more sensitive than he let on. Before bed, Courtney and I would often hang out with Mom in her and Chris’ bedroom. The rule was we were allowed to stay in there until Chris came upstairs. When he walked in, we would usually let out a collective groan. It had nothing to do with Chris — we were just kids who weren’t ready to go to sleep yet. But looking back, I know that it secretly hurt his feelings. And that makes me sad.

11. Even though I wasn’t his biological kid, Chris always made me feel like I was his “real” daughter. Yet neither of us ever said “I love you” to each other. Maybe because we didn’t start saying it early on, as years passed, it seemed too scary or too vulnerable to suddenly blurt it out.

But I did love him. And I knew, without a doubt, that he loved me too. Still, I just wish I had said it when I had the chance.

A Father's Day picture frame Alex made for Chris. 
A Father’s Day picture frame Alex made for Chris. 

12. Alex, I hate that you never got the chance to know Dad. I hate that you didn’t get to experience all of this first-hand. I hate that Chris never saw any of us go to prom or graduate high school or get into college. He wasn’t around to see us fall in love and he won’t be there to meet our kids someday.

But every time we’re thinking about him and some ’90s song starts playing on the radio; or when we’re missing him and we catch a “333,” our angel number, on a clock, or a receipt, or a license plate — they’re all little reminders that part of him is still with us.

Next time you get one of these signs, close your eyes. Doesn’t everything feel warm, even for just a second? I think that’s his love, his presence. And that will never go away.