Today is my father’s 80th birthday.
This is inconceivable to me, as it is to many of us who are finding that our fathers’ ages have become numbers which sound inappropriately like the last few lessons of our times tables, and generally associated more with the elderly and infirmed than with our lifelong protectors. Wait – we stop suddenly – can that be right?? Wait…yes, yes, that is right. It must be, because he was born in ’37. We are relieved, and then a little horrified, that the math checks out. We shake our heads and wonder where the time has gone and when we became the caregivers, the problem solvers, the grown ups.
Passing conversations with acquaintances which used to center on only ourselves, our spouses, and our children now include also a respectful pause before a reluctant but requisite call-and-respond about our parents, too. We ask, and prepare to respond ourselves, with a newfound emphasis on just the being: How is your dad these days? and How old is your dad now? There are, in our inflections, varying degrees of pride, chagrin, acceptance, depending on how things are going for the guy, and for us. It is a Sandwich Generation dance no one has taught us and yet, we all now seem to know. Or at least this is how I think that it goes. Because you don’t really know when your dad dies young.
My father was 45 years old when he received a cancer diagnosis which would soon cut his life shorter than I could even appreciate at the time. “Such a young man,” I remember a nurse saying, once when he was in the hospital, and my 17 year old self wondered what in the hell she was talking about. He didn’t seem all that young to me, especially if you considered that when he got his dark hair cut very short, you could see some gray at the temples and he sometimes wore dark socks with sandals. I mean, he was a dad. He got sicker, quickly, and I packed for college, quickly. He refused to discuss the inevitable outcome with anyone, and secretly promised me that he would be at my graduation. I wondered how he could believe that, and if he could possibly think that I did, too. I hoped he was just saying it to make me feel better, because I knew that it wasn’t true. It made me uncomfortable to know more than my dad.
He died a few months later, few enough that you could measure it in weeks, really; in a flash, it was all over; he was gone. Everyone understood the losses in the short term: he would not, as I had already known, be at my graduation, nor at the wedding at which I’d always worried he would one day be embarrassingly emotional. It was a devastating loss for each of his children; my brothers were too young to drive, my sister was too young to have started kindergarten. Now from my perch in middle age, where I have lived 7 years longer than he ever did, and at which I have been the neighbor, the friend, the carpool line companion, I know that such a loss ripples out, and is, in different ways, devastating for the whole town. It is a deeply- and widely-felt tragedy when a family man dies young.
Yes, the big-picture loss was evident, but what I would not know until years later was how much I would miss having him here for less auspicious milestones. We speak often of the graduations, weddings, birthdays at which the loss is most noticeable, but it is in the little things, the everydays, surprisingly more in recent years than in the distant past, in which I have missed him the most. It is only now that I can appreciate the enormity of the loss.
I have envied my friends when their hero dads stopped by to fix a leaky faucet, helped their husbands hang drywall, or troubleshooted over the phone. I have wondered what it is like to have a grandpa to take the kids fishing, out for ice cream or home from school when their mother was in a jam. In the most confusing and deeply lonely of times, I have been surprised to find myself longing for that paternal, perhaps only mythical, champion so unapologetically biased that he could be called and counted on, above all others and in complete disregard of the facts if necessary, to take my side. And when, at 40, a cancer diagnosis of my own felt so similar to his story that I just could not imagine that it would not end the same, I understood, finally, how love and reality and abject terror could conspire in an alchemy so powerful that you could not even talk about it. How, if you were a young man, as the nurse had so accurately pointed out, sending your eldest daughter to college in one of the proudest achievements of your life, as you lay dying in the greatest corporeal failure of your own, you might just stubbornly channel your rage into a quiet, gentle refusal to even go there.
I cannot say that I miss watching my father become elderly and infirmed; there were moments even in his brief illness where I got a glimpse into how difficult it must be to watch your hero wither away. But I sure wish he could have been here to see me grow up. I wish I could have told him how sorry I was for running off to college, and for ever thinking that having an adoring and emotional father of the bride on your arm could be anything but the greatest treasure imaginable. I guess I just wish we could have both gotten a litter older, to have been – with the emphasis on just the being – grown ups, together.