It used to be that birthdays were a monumental event in my family. Every member of our family was treated royally on the day of his or her birth. Birthday parties were epic. For example, on my ninth birthday, my dad hired Butch and Cookie, the chimpanzees from the local zoo (and their keeper) to entertain at my circus-themed party. I had a brand-new dress that was velvet and chiffon that I was dying to wear. Dad took tons of pictures – something which at the time drove me crazy, but today I’m so grateful for.
For my 17th birthday, eight of my best friends were treated to dinner and a night at the local dance club. When I turned 21, it was a ladies’ luncheon at the Cottonwood Country Club with entertainment provided by a singing telegram messenger and a male belly dancer.
My dad believed that the day of your birth was a day for celebration. He was a larger-than-life guy, and he liked larger-than-life parties. That’s one of the things my dad was so good at – making those around him feel extra special, especially on the one day of the year that mattered most.
My dad died just two days after my birthday in 2006. My birthdays haven’t been the same the last few years. That’s not to say that my family isn’t good to me – they most certainly are. We had a great dinner, then drove downtown to see the lights on Temple Square.
I got a gift certificate for a massage and a Jim Shore Santa from my mom, beautiful hand-made jewelry from my sister, cozy wool socks from my mother- and sister-in-law, a lovely sweater from my niece, and my youngest daughter drew a picture of a dragonfly for me (I would post it, but she said it isn’t done yet).
My Face Book friends (and members of my family who live far away) flooded my page with good wishes, and my coworkers signed a card and gave me chocolate.
But my birthday feels empty without my dad. I don’t mean to say that all of the above isn’t important and wonderful – it truly is – but my birthday is now linked to the loss of my dad, and I can’t break that bond in my mind.
Three years ago, my dad called me in the morning as I was getting ready for work to sing Happy Birthday to me in his terrible falsetto. Even thinking of it now makes me smile. “When can we go celebrate?” he asked.
“Whenever you want to, Pop,” I said.
“Maybe dinner tomorrow night?”
“Sure,” said, fully knowing he wasn’t feeling well. “Let’s go to Cinegrill.”
“Garlic bread; yeah!”
The next day he called to say he didn’t think he was up for dinner that night.
“Okay,” I said. “Maybe tomorrow night?”
“Okay, honey. I’ll call you in the morning.”
On Saturday morning, he wasn’t feeling better. “How about Sunday brunch?” he said.
“Whatever you want, Pop.”
“Well, it’s your birthday. It’s whatever you want.”
We agreed to brunch the next morning. Around 5:00 in the evening, he called back. I was wrapping Christmas gifts and trying to get ready for a holiday party at a friend’s that night.
“Can we hold off a few days?” he asked, and he sounded so disappointed.
“Pop, we can hold off a few weeks or a few months if we need. We’ll go when you’re feeling better. I don’t care when we celebrate,” I said. “I care that you’re there and you have fun.”
“But it’s your birthday and I don’t want you to think you’re not loved.”
“Pop,” I said, almost scolding him,”I don’t think celebrating my birthday a little late means you don’t love me. Gosh, if birthday celebrations equate to love, I’m one the most loved kids on the planet.”
“Well, let me see how I’m doing in the morning,” he said.
“I love you, Kimmy,” he said. He was one of about three people I let call me that.
“I love you, Pop.”
And that was the last time we ever spoke. My hubby and I went to our friends’ home for a party that night, and around 10:30 I told him I didn’t feel well and needed to go home. We walked in the door at 10:55 and the phone immediately began to ring. An officer from the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department was on the other end of the line, telling me that my dad had just passed away. I let out a shriek and collapsed to the floor. My husband took the phone and got the information while I pulled myself off the floor and tried to pull my head together.
I called my mom to ask her to come to the house and sit with the kids. My oldest was at a sleep-over with her youth group. We called and spoke with one of the adults, and my husband headed over to get her. I drove the 18 miles to my dad’s house in the worst snow storm of the season. His body was laid out at the top of the stairs where the paramedics had just finished working on him. His body was an empty shell. My sister sat on the step just below him, rocking back and forth, holding his hand, smoothing his hair off his face.
My dad’s wife wandered the floor below, sometimes letting out pitiful cries and moans, sometimes clutching her arms around her middle. Her mother sat at the counter, resting her chin in her hands. I brewed a pot of herbal tea and handed out mugs. I fixed a plate of sliced fruit. I washed the dishes in the sink. Around 2:30 in the morning, the mortician and his assistant arrived and carried my father’s body out the door. His wife offered us a place to stay for the night, but neither my sister nor I could bear the thought of staying – the house just felt too empty without him.
As we put on our coats to brave the storm, I noticed a red gift bag on the table by the door. On the bag was a big tag with my dad’s unique scrawl that said Kimmy.
I couldn’t bear to look at it. His wife didn’t say anything about it. On Christmas, she gave it to me – my last birthday gift from my dad. It was a very generous gift certificate to my favorite store, and a beautiful garnet necklace and earring set. He had gone out two days before my birthday to get them, and he hadn’t left the house since he’d come home that day.
I’m grateful to my friends and my family, but I don’t think they quite understand the ache I feel on my birthday now. Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death, and even three years on, it isn’t much easier. I miss you, Pop. I miss so much about you, but especially I miss hearing you sing Happy Birthday and know that, no matter what else might happen or what gifts I might get, you would make sure I knew I was loved.