FOR FATHER'S DAY, I pulled out a favorite black-and-white photograph of my dad giving me a haircut when I was 6 years old. I was curious what I might see through the eyes of a son who recently said goodbye to his father forever.
In the picture, taken by my mom in 1962, I'm looking straight into the lens as my dad, Bill, stands behind me, guiding electric clippers above my right ear.
Old photos are like magic, a way to keep the past present. So peering at the picture, I searched for some kind of message about my father.
And, in fact, I did discover something. But first let me tell you about my dad.
Born in 1930, he spent his early years in Buffalo, New York, where his father worked in a steel mill. His mother died when he was 3, though he didn't find this out until he was 12 or 13 when his father divorced a woman who my dad thought all those years was his mother.
Not long after my grandfather and his two sons moved to Venice, Calif., my dad, then 15, met a pretty 12-year-old at school named Janet. In time they fell in love and were married the night she graduated from high school.
Billy and his twin brother Bobby enlisted in the Air Force. While my uncle stayed on in the service, my dad became the first in our family to go to college, earning a master's degree. He became an English and history teacher and later a guidance counselor at a community college.
Fast forward through raising three children, touching the lives of thousands of students, seeing the birth of grandchildren and enjoying retirement.
And then one day he didn't feel quite right, and before we knew it, despite intervention and surgery, melanoma reached its fingers deep into my father's body.
On his final day, he waited for me to drive home to Los Gatos. I'd gotten a call that morning from my mom, her voice upbeat, leaving a message on my cell, saying something I don't remember now about my Dad, but something that let me know I needed to come home. This is a gift my parents have, an ability see and express the positive in all things. And given my dad's rough upbringing, it's amazing he didn't view life from a perspective of at least some bitterness.
My brother and sister were already home with our mom when I arrived. My dad's eldest granddaughter was also there, and in fact just a few days earlier all of his grandchilden had come from many miles to gather for a birthday party and to say what we silently knew were final goodbyes. On that day he lay on a hospital bed in my parent's bedroom. He perked up once or twice and smiled a little, and said a few words. But only a faint few.
Now my dad's breathing was labored. His eyes were half-closed, his jaw relaxed. He wasn't asleep, but he wasn't awake.
I sat alone beside his bed and thanked him for being a great dad and for all he'd done for us. And I said to him what he'd said to me so often over the years: "I love you."
Then I stepped away for just a moment, and alone in his room, in a move that would have impressed Houdini, he escaped the vicious grip of cancer.
What I discovered in the photo is the magic that comes from saying what needs to be said to those we love. And so instead of a black and white grief, I experienced peace. Instead of regret, I found strength.
Sure, I'm sad my dad is gone. I miss him. I wish I could call him up right now and say Happy Father's Day. I know he'd respond with a light laugh and a good word.
Yet even now I can hear his voice, and as the photo reveals, he's standing behind me, helping me to look and be my best.