One of my first memories of my father is of him guarding my back as I sat on a narrow, pale wood credenza and looked out the large glass window at cars passing by his store on Jericho Turnpike in Syosset. I was 4 or 5 years old.
My dad, Steven Kaplan, and his family owned Post ... Co., a women's clothing store. Visiting him at work was always a highlight for my two siblings and me.
As well-dressed women searched the racks for wool coats, silk blouses and matching pantsuits, I would sit on my wooden perch, high on the adrenaline of youthful curiosity. In his endearingly protective manner, my dad tightened his arms around me each time I shifted my body.
I would watch the movie theater entrance across the street, where people held hands and laughed mysteriously. With my father's strong hold on my back, I felt bold enough to take in the commotion of the outside world.
Other vivid memories of him continually flit through my mind as I go about my life: him lying on his side on the floor building block towers with my sister and me; playing 20 questions when I refused to go to sleep at night (he was always a wapiti, which years later I learned is an elk); eating an entire bowl of blueberries as he watched his University of North Carolina Tarheels on TV; sputtering out words through laughter as he told me from across the tennis court that he just played the entire set left-handed; walking me down the aisle on my wedding day at Cold Spring Country Club; growing teary-eyed as we sat at Millie's Place in Manhasset after I announced my pregnancy with my first child and his first grandchild; giggling as my son poked Grandpa's face.
Time after time, my dad sacrificed his own needs and desires for the well-being of others. One day, after years of uneventful visits to the same barber, he walked into our kitchen with a small bare patch in his otherwise full head of freshly trimmed hair.
My brother asked, "Why would you ever go to an 80-year-old man who can't cut hair anymore?"
"I've been going to him for 30 years," my dad replied. "I'm not going to abandon him now."
On the day before he died in the summer of 1997, he played in a charity golf tournament in honor of his friend's grandson, who has Down syndrome. Though my dad had too much to drink that evening, and most likely fell asleep at the wheel, he spent his last hours on Earth sending good energy into the world.
It's been almost 18 years since my father's fatal car accident. He was only 54. Each and every day since that tragic night I have been filled with inspiration from and love for a man who continues to be a hero to me.
My relationship with my father has evolved since his death. Though each family milestone that he misses brings a painful reminder of his absence, the years of living with him inside of my head have brought me closer to him in a way that is indescribable.
His words flow through my mind at random times, leaving me breathless. Often, especially as I am about to drift off to sleep and the air is still and quiet, I hear his voice and its humorous ring as if he spoke moments ago.
"Anyone who matches perfectly looks like an idiot," he'd say. Or, "What are you gonna do about it?" Or, "You gotta laugh."
Every year on my wedding anniversary, which is the last time I saw him conscious, I think of our last hug goodbye. He and my mother had been babysitting for my 10-month-old son while my husband and I enjoyed dinner at Louie's in Port Washington. As my dad left our Great Neck apartment, he grabbed me in a big bear hug and kissed my cheek. I could not have known when he said, "I love you," that those would be the last words I would hear him speak. Five days later he was gone. The words have echoed through the days of my life ever since.
Reader Karin Greenberg lives in Dix Hills.