Erin Christine Mitchener would be 47 today. Because of the closeness of her birthday to Thanksgiving, I’ve always associated one with the other.
Some of our friends may not know that in addition to our 30-year-old son, I also had a daughter, born to me and my first wife. Erin was killed by a drunk driver in 1992, one month after her 21st birthday.
Because she never lived here, our Chicago friends didn’t know her. Carole and I moved here from St. Louis the summer Erin graduated from high school and headed to the University of Kansas.
I’ve never figured out how to comfortably introduce my daughter to friends who don’t know about her. Part of me asks, why do they need to know? It will just make people feel sad and uncomfortable. But then, my friends should be aware of important parts of my life, right? And Erin was – is – part of who I am.
26 years after her death, I’m not in active mourning. The pain has scabbed over, like a wound. The scar is still there; it always will be. But now I can touch that scar, and talk about it. And talk about Erin.
So on her birthday, that’s what I want to do: talk about Erin.
In a couple earlier Old Guy posts, I mentioned Erin. It felt good to smile and laugh at the memories. Last year, I enjoyed writing about Thanksgiving meals during the 12 years I was single, and how Erin and Thanksgiving are forever linked in my memory.
Because her mother and I lived a few blocks apart, Erin would usually stay at my apartment twice a week. I was aware of what was going on with school, and I knew her friends. When she was with me, it gave me reason to cook a real meal. Our weekend morning tradition was a big breakfast: bacon & eggs or pancakes or waffles. I still love big breakfasts.
I met her first date. He picked her up at my apartment, and he didn’t like me. She said that I was so big, he was scared of me. Good. I liked that.
She was a normal teenaged girl, strikingly confident one minute, hopelessly insecure the next. She did very well at an academically challenging high school. She played jazz saxophone, and she was active in her church group and high school activities such as Students Against Drunk Driving (ironically) and Youth Crisis Hotline. She enjoyed writing, and shared my very sophisticated, razor-sharp sense of humor.
At KU, she began to blossom intellectually and emotionally. She was making all four of her parents very proud.
At 21, Erin was still a work-in-progress. She was unfinished. In the middle of her junior year at KU, she’d declared a dual major in psychology and women’s studies. I used to tell her that was a great career combination because there were so many crazy women in the world. She never thought that was as funny as I did. (Of course, I kept repeating it.)
Who knows what she would have become? Clinical or research psychologist? Activist? Writer? Educator? Social worker? Truck driver? Maybe she would been permanently unfinished, always evolving. That would have been okay, too.
And some selfish, personal questions will never be answered. Would she have married? Would she have had a big wedding? Would I have worn a tux and proudly, happily and sadly walked down the aisle with her on my arm? Would I have liked her husband? Or her wife? Would s/he have liked me? Would I have teenaged grandchildren today?
During the 12 years between my first and second marriages – not the best time in my life – Erin was the only immediate family I had. She was my anchor. She probably didn’t realize that. I’m not sure I did.
Today, my immediate family looks different. I have a wife of 32 years (not to be confused with a 32-year-old wife), a 30-year-old son, and a very loving daughter-in-law. I enjoy talking about all of them with my friends. And while it’s obviously not the same talking about a daughter who died, I also enjoy talking about Erin. It makes me remember how much I enjoyed being her father.
I want my friends to know that I feel very lucky having been the father to both kids, and now father-in-law to a daughter-in-law. A lot to be thankful for.