Dad Day: Death Is A Holiday

By Lennlee Keep 09/02/19

Once a year on our fake holiday, we shine light on the person he was. We show him how much we remember—and how little we can forget.

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Lennlee Keep
Lennlee Keep

Almost a year had passed since my ex-husband, Josh, was found dead.

As the anniversary approached, I felt pressure from friends and family to mark the occasion. My son and I had spent an entire year trying to regain shreds of normalcy and happiness.

The idea of revisiting our loss with a date circled on the calendar seemed agonizing and dumb. It would be like swimming in a lightning storm. Sure, you might not get struck and drown, but why would you risk it?

Plus, there were practicalities. Since Josh was “found” dead after a long battle with alcoholism, we didn’t know the exact date of his death. We couldn’t spend the day visiting his grave because he was cremated and his ashes were in our living room. I suppose we could’ve held a vigil next to the bookcase where the urn sits, but that seemed weird.

What I knew for sure was that I couldn’t ignore the day. I didn’t want my son Dash to look back years later and wonder why we hadn’t done anything for that first anniversary. I never wanted him to think that I had forgotten his dad or didn’t love him, even though we had been divorced for three years before he died.

Sobbing over photos and focusing on Josh’s absence would be an awful way to spend the day. I’m also not a big fan of the otherwise popular “celebration of life” thing, because of the way it erases our sadness. I think people should be allowed to grieve in all its complexity.

I hated hearing, “He would have wanted you to be happy, he wouldn’t want you to cry.” First of all, that negates the pain of our loss, and second, if Josh could have whatever he wanted, I’ll bet that he would have wanted not to be dead.

So I created Dad Day—a day when Dash and I do everything his father would have loved. Josh was British and loved Marmite, so we “eat” it for breakfast. We don’t really eat it, because it is a disgusting yeast paste that neither of us can stand. But we smear it on toast, take a bite, gag, then run to the sink to spit it out. After that, we stick to Josh’s other favorites: pizza, Dr. Pepper, popcorn, and gummy bears.

Josh was a huge hockey fan, so we bust out his New York Rangers jerseys. Dash wears the white one all day, and I wear the blue one for as long as I can stand it. My God, the polyester! We watch cricket, which neither of us understand, and his favorite movies, like The Warriors, then finish the day with as many episodes of The Simpsons as time allows.

Stories about Josh naturally come up. I tell Dash about the time he threw a big party while his parents were out of town. He would have gotten away with it if he hadn’t recorded a lot of it on the answering machine. Or the time he met Margaret Thatcher and accidentally dropped a condom at her feet. Her response was, “Well? Pick it up then!”

Josh’s brother Max calls from Italy and shares more wild tales, like the Christmas they out-ran the police in Zanzibar, or the time Josh sent his six-year old brother Louie home alone in a London taxi, because he wanted to spend some time with a cute girl he had just met. We laugh about what a crazy teenager he was. And yes, we cry a little, because Josh would have loved Dad Day, and he’s missing it.

Joshua Keep was born on April 21,1969 and was found dead on August 19, 2016. But he wasn’t just his delivery and expiration dates. He was his smile. He was the way he laughed and gave and yawned and worked and loved. I want to give Dash the intimate pieces of the man he can never know in this way. I try to breathe life back into Josh through stories and myths of his heroism, his stupidity, and his kindness.

So once a year on our fake holiday, we shine light on the person he was. We pull him back to us. All of the things and the people he loved are still here. We show him how much we remember—and how little we can forget.

"Dad Day: Death Is A Holiday" is featured in the upcoming anthology We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor slated for release on September 10th. 

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Lennlee Keep (“Dad Day: Death Is a Holiday”) is a nonfiction writer, filmmaker, storyteller, and mother of a teenaged boy named Dash. Her writing has appeared in the Rumpus and the Southeast Review, and her films have been shown on PBS, A&E, and the BBC. The ex-wife of a dead guy, she talks about grief more than most people are comfortable with. She is working on a memoir about addiction, grief, and a heart so broken it required surgery. That said, she is much funnier than the preceding two sentences might lead you to believe.

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