My dad was never big on birthdays or holidays, saying they were ‘just another day’, but my mom was the complete opposite, taking advantage of every day on the calendar that she could turn into a celebration…sometimes even making her own holiday, like the days we’d come home from college (she’d hang ‘Welcome Home’ signs on the door and have our favorite donuts waiting in the kitchen). As kids, she’d dress us up in clothes to match the celebrations, from green shirts on St. Patrick’s Day to velvet dresses for Christmas. Even my dad would play along in her festivities, not because he cared about a holiday, but because that’s the kind of man he was…the kind to do whatever she asked simply because he lived to make her happy.
Birthdays were an especially big deal to my mom. We didn’t have a lot of money, so it wasn’t like we got cars when we turned 16 or enjoyed other outrageous presents that so many of our friends were given. We’d typically get one small gift, along with a card. We knew Mom always bought the card and present…Dad was busy working…but she always made sure he signed the card personally.
It’s crazy that I can still picture the signature, ‘Love, Daddy’ in his tight, neat cursive on the card.
It’s crazy because it’s been so long since I’ve actually seen it.
My dad died four years ago. Four days before my birthday. He was sick, fighting cancer for years before it finally took his life, and in the two weeks before his death he endured the worst kind of suffering you can imagine. Seeing him tortured by this cruel disease devastated me. Having him lose the battle just days before my birthday connected the two events forever in my mind, and I knew then that I’d never be interested in celebrating another birthday. It’s just too hard to be happy after such sadness.
When my birthday hit four days after his death, two days after his funeral, despite my pleas to just skip my day, my mom still presented me with a cake and card. I sobbed, upset that she ignored my request to just let it go. I knew it would be too much to face the day without him, and I wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening. I couldn’t deny his death, but I could ignore my birthday. My mom wouldn’t allow it. So, with a cake and a card in front of me, and my daughter in my lap, I did my best to go along with the celebration she tried to create. I set the card aside and shared the cake with my siblings and other relatives who happened to be gathered around that day, still going through our grieving.
Hours slipped by and people left. I never did open the card, setting it aside for later that night, and my mom took notice. She asked why I didn’t open it immediately and I let her know it was just too much at the moment. That’s when she told me.
She told me she bought the card a few weeks earlier. She had my dad sign it then, too, before he was really, really sick, before the pain prevented him from being able to lift a pen again and sign another card.
Staring at the sealed envelope I couldn’t help but sob some more.
I knew then and there that I wouldn’t be opening it that year.
And I haven’t opened it any year since.
Every year I get it out, think that I might open it, and decide against it. Then I put it away for safekeeping until the next year.
Well, I got it out again last week, thinking I’d finally be strong enough to be able to handle it, to open the card and see this one last act of love from my dad who is no longer with me.
But on this night before I turn 45, I now know it’ll be waiting even longer.
Because I know once I do open the card, that will be it.
There won’t ever be another birthday wish scribbled across a card from the man I adored all my life…
Four years later, I’m still not ready to soak up his love in the card I know he signed for me in those last few weeks of his life, probably knowing he wouldn’t be around for another birthday.
Guess I know once I do, he really is gone forever.
Along with his birthday wish, signed, ‘Love, Daddy’.