On the occasion of his 80th birthday

Last year on this day, at the very beginning of 2017, I linked this blog post to my Facebook page, “outing” myself as a blogger, and as a wannabe writer. 

I cannot tell you how terrifying this was.

My hands shook. My heart raced. I felt like I was going to throw up. It still makes me vaguely nauseous to think of it. The voice in my head—who turns out to be a total asshole, by the way—made fun of me, and assured me that others would, too. It asked me relentlessly—meanly—just who in the hell I thought I was. 

But I had just finished reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, and had come to understand that both the fear and the voice were just Resistance: a force, not unlike gravity, that serves to undermine creativity. That exists in equal proportion to the absolute necessity of doing the thing you secretly think that maybe you were born to do. That makes fun of you, and talks to you meanly, and asks you who in the hell you think you are. That needs to be acknowledged, and then defeated, by the warrior. 

So I kept pressing on, and pressing “publish”, over and over in the presence of the fear, within earshot of the asshole-voice, until it wasn’t so scary anymore. Until it turned out OK. And when I looked back over the year, it turned out to be the beginning of the thing that I was the most proud of having done.

I like to think that my dad, who would be 81 today—and whose voice in my head is never mocking or mean, but is kind and gentle as it urges me forward and reminds me of who in the hell I really am—maybe had something to do with that. 

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 more like the last few lessons of our times tables than an age, and are generally associated more with the elderly and infirmed than with our lifelong protectors. Wait—we stop suddenly—can that be right?? Would he really be 80?? Yes, yes, that is right. It must be, because he was born in ’37. We are relieved at first, and then a little horrified, that the math checks out. We shake our heads and wonder where the time has gone. When we became the caregivers, the grown ups, the problem solvers for so much more than the math.

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. How is your dad these days? How old is he now? we ask, with a newfound emphasis on the being. There are in our responses 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 a young man.

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 the gray at the temples. He sometimes wore dark socks with sandals. I mean, he was a dad.

He got sicker, quickly, so I packed for college quickly, too. He refused to discuss the inevitable outcome with anyone, and promised me, secretly, that he would be at my graduation. I wondered if he really believed that, 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 was not, and would not be true. It made me unsettled to feel like the grown up, like maybe, for the very first time, I knew 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 known, be at my graduation three years later, not at the someday wedding at which I’d worried he would one day be embarrassingly emotional. He would not be able to teach my brothers to drive, to see my sister start kindergarten. Now from my perch in middle age, where I have lived 7 years longer than he ever did, and during which I have been the neighbor, the friend, the carpool line companion, I know that such a loss ripples out, devastating the whole town. It is both a deeply- and widely-felt tragedy when a family man dies young.

What I did not know—what I wonder if anyone knew —was how much I would miss having him here for less auspicious milestones. We speak often—gently, out of earshot of the family—of the graduations, weddings, and birthdays at which the loss will be most noticeable, but it is in the little things, the more recent everydays in which I have missed him the most. It is only now that I can appreciate both the depth and the breadth 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 talked them through car trouble 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 mythical paternal 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 way, I came to understand, 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  channel your rage into a quiet, stubborn 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 being so eager to run off to college, and for thinking that having an adoring and emotional father of the bride on my arm could have been anything less than the greatest treasure imaginable.

I guess I just wish we could have had some more time, to have gotten a little older. To have been grown ups—with a newfound emphasis on the being—together.

#52for52 (32/52)

7 thoughts on “On the occasion of his 80th birthday

  1. Pingback: The last words: 52/52 | QuiverVoice

  2. Beautiful!

    I was quite a bit older when I lost my Dad (April 2009) but I was an older Mom so my children were quite young when he passed and I was in the process of moving home (june 2009)

    I find myself thinking the same things about how proud he would be of his grandchildren, thinking he would pick them up to do Saturday errands and haircuts, supporting Ethan in all the Down Syndrome and Special Olympics and Ashley with her Art talent and Color Guard.

    I know he is proud from above but the kids do remember and miss him.


    Liked by 1 person

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