I think I’ve held this envelope in my hands at least a hundred times during the last five years.
I kept it posted to my bulletin board in my office for a while.
But then it hurt to see it each day, so I put it away in a file where I knew I wouldn’t lose it, but wouldn’t be reminded on a daily basis of what was gone.
This was a birthday card that my mom picked up and had my dad sign, as she’d done for decades of my life. But this time, my dad died before it was given to me.
He took his last breath four days before my birthday.
When my birthday rolled around, I begged my mom not to plan any celebrations. I didn’t want any recognition of something that was supposed to be happy when we were all consumed with such sadness.
She ignored my request.
We were gathered at my sister’s house when the cake came out and the singing started. Along with the tears. So many tears.
I pulled it together as much as I could. After all, my daughter, then barely five, was sitting on my lap. She wanted to see me smile. I pulled a pitiful looking happy face from deep within my grief. I faked my way though the singing for my daughter. For my mom. For anyone who needed to see I wasn’t going to totally lose it when they were trying so hard to make me happy.
But there was no way I was opening that card.
I looked at my mom and asked right on the spot.
‘Daddy signed this, didn’t he?’
She nodded her head in affirmation.
Well, that pretty much made this a card a priceless treasure…something that kept my dad alive in my mind. Something I wanted to keep sealed and secure as long as possible. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to open that envelope.
Knowing this was the last gift I had from my father…the last loving action he took for me…well, that was something I wanted to hold on to forever.
But now, five years later, I have accepted that my father is gone. I still hurt… a lot…when I think of the hole in my heart since his death, but I’ve learned to live with the ache.
I finally remember him again as the strong, smart, loving man who could build a set of bunk beds for me and my sisters without a template of any kind. And he could make them better than any bunk bed you could buy. His had a ladder made out of carved-out hearts in the wood. His had arches on the ends. His were ten times better than any store-bought version because, well, they were made with love.
I remember him as the guy who worked nonstop every day of his life, on-call on his job pretty much around the clock, and often called out for an emergency just as he sat down at the dinner table. I remember him as the guy who always wanted to learn more, who didn’t want to miss the evening news each night, who poured through the pages of books quicker than we could buy the next one. I remember him again as the guy who rivaled MacGyver with his ability to fix anything with a roll of duct tape and a piece of chewing gum. It’s taken a while to remember THAT guy, instead of the man who suffered through unbearable pain in his final days, holding on to hope that he’d somehow survive.
My older sister recently pointed out that my dad would not want me in tears, but instead, would want me smiling when I think of him. He used to say birthdays were ‘just another day’, nothing to fuss over, but my mom tells me he was just saying that…that birthdays were a big deal to him after all.
I think my father would be very disappointed that I haven’t celebrated my birthday since he died.
Five years now.
And the last thing I ever wanted to do –then or now—was to disappoint my dad.
So, this year, I’m opening that card.
I’m unsealing the last thing I have of him that feels alive, even though I know it’s not.
Because in the end, he remains alive within me, my siblings, our children. And he always will be, on my birthday and beyond.