Dear Dad,

When I was in seventh grade, you drew a continuum to show me that I wasn’t the ugliest girl at Islander Middle School. I came home in a terrible funk about it, so you attempted to rationalize with me, saying I couldn’t possibly be the ugliest girl in the whole school. When the standard reassurances weren’t working, you shifted gears and drew a continuum of all the middle school girls. We quickly agreed on the top end of the continuum – Erika was in a Big Red commercial and was the most beautiful girl I’d seen outside of the movies. I quickly wrote my name on the opposite side of the continuum. You put your hand on mine and said, “Surely there is one person at school who is uglier than you.” And, after some deliberation, I was able to name one unfortunate 12-year-old who I felt deserved the title more than I did. The whole exercise actually made me feel better – and it illustrates how you’ve been my counselor, confidante, cheerleader and inspiration – for as long as I can remember.

You were on the sidelines for every swim meet, soccer game, and track meet. We skied together on weekends, you sat by my side as I practiced piano and you never missed a choir concert. You quizzed me on Spelling Bee words even when I retreated to the dog crate to try to get away from you. You patiently sat with me at the dining room table helping me with my Physics and Math homework – and steadfastly refused to give me the easy answers that I begged for. I’d lose my temper, break my pencil, and act like a jerk…and you’d patiently say, “Dana, come sit back down if you want me to help you.” You helped my friends wanting to apply to medical school, and you’ve offered medical advice to others who didn’t know where to turn. I once asked you what you do when you have to tell a family that their loved one is going to die. You said, “I do my best to be as honest and kind as possible. I give them a hug and sometimes I cry with them.”

In 1996, I was home from college and mom called with the bad news that you’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Mom tried to talk me off the ledge, but I’d heard the “C” word and could hear no more. I laced up my running shoes and went for the hardest five-miler I’ve ever done, sobbing the entire time. The concept of losing you was simply too much. How could I possibly get my first real job, get married, have children, and become a bona fide grown up without you by my side?

Fast forward almost two decades. You’ve supported me when my heart was broken by boyfriends and listened gamely when I told you I was going to marry a man I’d known for six weeks. (For the record, that guy’s name was Mike Halter, and I DID marry him.) Walking down the aisle with you at my wedding is one of my most cherished memories. I only cried once that whole day – during the father-daughter dance when you told me that you were proud of me.

Today, you’re “Papa” to my girls, and their eyes light up whenever we talk about you. You taught Cassie to swim after I hit my threshold for frustration, and you patiently follow Kenna around every Tuesday, helping with potty training and soothing her when Cassie knocks her down. You excel as a referee, just like you did when Marla and I were little. We talk several times a week, have regular dinners and opera dates, and enjoy great family vacations together. People say that women marry men like their fathers, and I can’t think of a better role model for a husband and father than you. I won’t ever take you – or the special relationship we have – for granted.

I love you, dad.