After losing my dad suddenly to a heart condition, I noticed for many years that I would start to feel anxious and unnerved for the week leading up to major holidays, the anniversary of my dad’s death, and most of all, his birthday.
It always struck me as ironic. It was still called his birthday, even though he was gone. It was a day marking an age that he didn’t have the chance to reach. A day that for most people celebrates a new year of life, to me was another reminder of an untimely death.
His birthdays came and went for nine years with me spending March 12th in solitude. I shut myself off to friends, family, and everyone who cared about me. I lied when they asked if I was okay. I convinced myself that this was my grief, my story, my hard day, and nobody else could understand. It seemed easier to deal with it by myself, to not have to explain, to shut off emotions, and let a numbness wash over me.
In my senior year of college, March 12th approached as it always did… but for some reason, that year was different. I was a wreck – overcome with emotion, filled with anxiety, and struck with a realization I hadn’t allowed myself to come to terms with: I missed my dad.
I wanted to celebrate with him, to call him on the phone and sing him happy birthday, to buy him a present and mail it in a care package to Richmond, or drive three hours there to have dinner with him. Admitting these things to myself reopened wounds that I had been denying, because in the back of my mind I knew how painful it would be.
So on the eve of what would have been my dad’s 49th birthday, I was broken. Not knowing how to deal with this sudden rush of emotions, I called my mentor, Lynne. I told her how I was feeling, how much it hurt, and asked her what I could do to make it better. Lynne validated everything I was feeling and reassured me that this wasn’t a bad thing – it was a step forward. Then she made a suggestion that surprised me. She said “If you wish you could celebrate your dad’s birthday with him, you should do it. Why don’t you take tomorrow off and have a birthday party for him?”
I thought through this for a little while, and felt like I couldn’t throw a party for my dad. Doing something like that would make me crazy. Could I actually consider myself a sane person if I spent the day having a birthday party for my dead father? What would my roommate think?
But by the end of the night, I decided to do it. I took the next day off from classes and schoolwork, and spent my day doing only things my dad and I loved to do.
I woke up that morning, put my dad’s picture in the main room of my apartment, and moved on to my first activity: breakfast. When I was a kid, if we had time before school my dad and I would make pastina.
So, I boiled the tiny pasta in the water, added the butter, and cracked an egg into the middle. I then had to stir as fast as I could to make sure the egg wouldn’t congeal before spreading to the entire dish. As I stirred, I could almost hear my dad’s voice over my shoulder, jokingly cheering “Stiiiiiiiiir! Faster, faster, faster!” I laughed out loud and realized that in that moment, I felt more connected to my dad than I had in a long time.
For the rest of the day, I spent my time doing things I knew my dad would have loved to do if he could have been there with me. I watched one of our favorite movies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I thought about which parts he told me were his favorites, and felt a special elation when those events unfolded on the TV screen.
When the movie was over, I went to the grocery store to get ingredients to make one of his favorite dinners, taking care to purchase only authentic Italian products, which he had taught me to pick out. I came home and prepared linguini with clam sauce, remembering his number one rule of cooking: “Don’t be afraid of the gaaaah-lic!” (in a cheesy Italian accent, of course).
Finally, I made him a birthday cake, candles and all. My best friend at college, who had also lost her father, came over and we shared the cake outside on a beautiful Blacksburg night while exchanging memories of dads.
When the day was over, I was filled with peace beyond explanation. I had never felt so close to my father in the nine years since he had died. I knew that I needed to continue to honor him in this way, and that finding joy in celebrating his memory is exactly what he would want me to do.
For the past few years, my dad’s birthday has become an entirely new milestone for me. Rather than being one of the “hard days,” it is now a day that I look forward to, and get excited about. His birthday has become an opportunity to share memories with people in my life who never got to know my dad, as well as those who did. One of my dad’s favorite things to do was eat great Italian food at a table full of people he loved. Tonight, I am going to celebrate his birthday by doing just that.
I recently heard two teenage girls share a poem they wrote in memory of their fathers. All of their words were beautiful, but the line that stuck with me was, “We will celebrate you more, and mourn you less.”
Today, on my Dad’s birthday, that is the step I am also choosing to take.
Happy birthday, Dad.