God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness,
hath shined in our hearts.
2 Corinthians 4:6
Today would have been my Dad’s 70th birthday. We would have celebrated big today with hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, or maybe a home-cooked meal. Then, cake and ice cream. He would have opened his presents of books, gift cards, and scratch-off tickets. Maybe a few new shirts or socks or other things he needed. When I closed my eyes, I heard the laughter, the sound of good times we used to have. Then tears fell as I opened my eyes. All I heard was silence.
I remembered when he turned 50. He had just gotten out of the hospital and we all took a collective deep breath. It had been a rough few months. A heart procedure, a slow recovery, and a transfer to a rehab hospital. We were so happy to have him home and he was feeling better every day. We wanted to celebrate big for his 50th birthday that year so we planned a surprise party. We invited family and friends, some he hadn’t seen in a long time. We made up a story about touring a venue for my bridal shower as Mike and I were getting married that September. I asked him to go with me since everyone else was “busy”. I could barely contain my excitement as we pulled into the parking lot. I told him the owners asked me to stop by during an event so I could get a feel for the place. I thought he might recognize familiar cars of family and friends but thankfully, his observation skills were lacking that day.
We entered the building through the back door to the kitchen. We immediately heard the crowd in the next room.
“We can’t just walk in there,” said Dad, stopping behind me. “There are people in there. They told you to just come in? We can’t do that.”
“Yes, we can,” I said. “They told me it was okay.” I continued walking toward the doors despite his apprehension. The sound of the crowd grew louder.
Dad muttered something about crashing people’s parties but followed me to the doorway. I stepped back, smiled, and motioned him to go ahead. Confused, he hesitantly poked his head through the door.
“Hey, I know that guy!”, he said, noticing his friend Cutty and his wife Jean. A big smile took over his face as he stepped inside and surveyed the room. A few seconds later, he seemed to leap to the middle of the room and threw his arms up in the air.
“I know all these people!” he said, his face beaming. I smiled through tears. He so deserved it. All of it.
“King for the day,” we said, handing him a goofy crown we bought for him to wear.
He proudly put on the red, white, and gold crown and spent the rest of the afternoon talking and laughing and enjoying everyone’s company. Months earlier, we didn’t know if Dad would make it out of that hospital bed. There he stood, loud and boisterous and full of life, enjoying all the attention at a party in his honor.
We pulled it off. That surprise party was an amazing feat considering most of those people lived in that tiny town with only one stoplight where secrets were hard to keep.
That day was one of the best days of my life. I believe it was one of his too.
That was 20 years ago. He celebrated just three more birthdays after that, though quietly. He died in February, three months to do the day before his 54th birthday.
On the first birthday after he passed away, we wanted to do something to honor his memory. That year we decided to take gifts to his dialysis center. The patients and nurses had become like family. He always took gifts into the nurses and patients. Little things he made. Food he cooked. Anything to show his love, gratitude, and appreciation. We wanted to continue what he did. Putting it all together gave us something to focus on that day.
Something other than our grief.
Over the years, we honored his birthday in many ways. We have taken flowers and plants, comfort items, and staff lunches to dialysis centers and cancer centers. It didn’t matter what we did. The only purpose was to spread joy on his special day.
This year was no different.
When I turned my calendar to May a couple weeks ago, I wrote “Dad’s Birthday” in the square, just like I did when he was here. Mom and I talked about plans for his birthday months ago. We were going to figure something out. Not even a worldwide pandemic was going to stop Dad’s birthday celebration.
I wrote a few posts on social media asking people to spread kindness in Dad’s honor. I created a hashtag #DoingWhatDonaldDid. Many people stepped up, including several of my daughter’s friends. It filled my heart to see the acts of kindness done in Dad’s honor. He would have loved it. Since there were so many restrictions due to the pandemic, we went simple this year. I spent the morning baking chocolate chip cookies. My mom and I put the cookies in individual bags, along with a card honoring my father. Since medical offices weren’t very receptive to outside food donations right now, we dropped them off to friends, family, and neighbors to lift their spirits in Dad’s memory.
Since the quarantine started, we have been cleaning out our basement. This week, Mom and I looked though some boxes from the old house. We found Dad’s hard hat. It still had dirt inside. Before his health declined, he was a safety director at a coal mine. He taught first aid classes. He served on mine rescue teams, fought underground fires, and helped with mining disasters all over the country. We found his badge from when he studied to be a paramedic too. He was all kinds of hero.
We found the pin that was placed in his leg after he almost died in terrible car accident on his way home from work one night. I wasn’t sure why he saved it, but we always thought it was cool. We found his checkbook too. I smiled to myself when I saw the checks still inside. At first glance, it was a cheerful design with sunflowers on the corners, a meadow, and what looked like a wooden shed in the center. Upon closer inspection, it was not a shed. It was an outhouse.
“That’s perfect!”, he said as he looked at the check designs available. “They will know what I think of them every time they get my checks.”
An outhouse. That was the one he picked. That was so Dad. Because he had renal disease, he had different insurance coverage for different treatments. The companies fought over who had to pay what and it required hours on the phone and a ton of his limited energy to sort it all out. The outhouse checks were a quiet statement to those billing departments that caused so much aggravation.
I paged through the register and studied his familiar writing. He meticulously recorded and checked off every transaction, balancing his checkbook each month. I didn’t get that gene. I hadn’t balanced my personal checkbook in years. I traced my fingers across the carbon copies of the checks, one check dated the day before he died. After that, checks were written in my mom’s handwriting to places like the cemetery and the funeral home. I closed the checkbook.
We also found his wallet, soft and worn. It smelled strong of leather. I held it in my hands and then to my heart. To hold a piece of him again. Inside was a picture of his father, certifications from MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration), and medical cards for patients with renal disease. There were memberships cards to various social clubs from our old home town, his voter registration, and a card from the Kit-Han-Ne Rock and Gem Club to which he was a member for years. He had a copy of an old check made out to Children’s Hospital for $615.00 from 1982. His company collected the money and he got to deliver it during a Christmas fund drive. It must have meant so much to him since he carried it in his wallet all those years. There was also a calendar card from 2002, two years before he passed. I read the bible verse on the front.
God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts.
2 Corinthians 4:6
That made me smile. Dad found himself in darkness, but he surely did shine.
On Dad’s birthday week, I baked. I wrapped. I packed. I posted. I dove into service, into the projects, into the idea of it all. I honored my Dad. I celebrated his birthday.
What I really wanted was him. One more day. One more morning on the porch swing. One more phone call.
Baking and wrapping and packing and posting was a distraction from the pain and the grief that seeped into every nook and cranny of my heart. Doing all those things gave me something to do.
Doing kept me from feeling. That’s how I got through things.
When Dad died, I did all kinds of things. I took Mom to the funeral home to make arrangements. I shared information with loved ones. I stood at the casket with a brave face and talked to family and friends who came to pay their respects. Everyone told me I was strong. My father’s daughter. After the service, I was mad at this world that pretended everything was normal. Didn’t they know Dad was gone? This world didn’t stop for grief. The world kept spinning and I went on too. I worked at my career. Mike and I went on vacations and decorated our new house. It took longer than we wanted but we started a family. Two kids and two cats back then. Life went on, I supposed. I just had a gaping hole in my heart.
When I got cancer, I carried on. The world still kept spinning. I got the kids ready for school. I helped with homework. I made sure Mike ate and slept and took care of himself. I topped off medical appointments with lunch dates with Mom, so she knew I was okay. I smiled through it all, assuring everyone that all was well. Nothing to see here. Just cancer. All I had to do was get through chemo.. and surgery… and radiation and life would go back to normal. I said it so often, I believed it myself.
About a year later when I was done and “cancer-free”, I found out there was no such thing as normal. With much shorter hair and a ton of new scars, I continued my roles as business owner, mom, wife, daughter, and friend. Somehow, my pieces didn’t fit. But that was okay, I could figure it out. I was strong and brave and apparently, an inspiration. I mean, that was what everyone kept telling me.
Just when I found my footing, my cancer came back. This time, there would be no end to chemo. No cure. Only more radiation, more treatment, and a dismal prognosis. That was okay. No big deal. I could do this. Everyone said so. With an uncertain future, I gave up the business I worked so hard for, the career I prepared for since I was in high school. That was okay too. Because now apparently, I was braver and stronger and a much bigger inspiration than before. I was dying, but people reassured me I was so good at it. Such grace and dignity, they said.
So I baked chocolate chip cookies. I wrote blog posts. I encouraged and lifted the spirits of friends and family. I lent an ear, a shoulder, a helping hand. I experimented with my hair color and my hair style. I redecorated rooms in our home. I changed what I could because so much was out of my control. I cleaned. I organized. I read my Bible and so many books. I drank hot tea. I volunteered. I served. I was good at doing all the things. Sometimes too many things.
Because doing kept me from feeling.
There were quiet moments when the grief was too much. When I desperately wanted to call my Dad. Hear his voice. Visit with him. I cried out to God. I asked how much more I had to take. How much more emotional muck I had to trudge through. Grief and loss. Suffering and pain. A dreaded diagnosis. Anything else?
But then I thought about Dad. His grief and loss. His pain. His devastating diagnoses, one after another. His heart didn’t work. His kidneys didn’t work. The medications that helped one destroyed the other. He told me about those quiet moments in the dead of night when he was sick and tired and sad and angry. He had been there too. Right where I was now.
But he planted a garden. He planted flowers. He read books. He cooked meals. He canned vegetables and jellies and sauces. He sat on the porch and on benches. He enjoyed the sunshine and the rain and the wind in the trees. He talked with people. Often strangers, but no one stayed a stranger for long. He told stories and jokes and made people laugh. So hard it hurt.
He was a gift-giver, an encourager, a beacon of light. God commanded the light to shine. The light in Dad’s heart shined out of the darkness.
As much as my heart still ached, how blessed I was to have loved him and to have been loved by him. How blessed I was to have the sweet memories and the life lessons he taught me. How grateful I was to have learned to deal with my mess by watching him deal with his.
I missed my Dad every day and my life was often difficult, but doing what he did helped me through the hard days. I held onto hope. I held onto faith. What kept his memory close and what bridged that gaping hole in my heart was finding joy in the little things. Like he did.
Sunrises. Sunsets. Flowers on my morning room table. Sipping hot tea. Cooking and baking. Gathering with family and friends. Sunny days and rainy days and sudden thunderstorms too. Showing people in my life how much they were loved and appreciated. I did my best.
I didn’t feel worthy of those labels people placed on me. Strong. Brave. An inspiration. I only identified with one of those labels. My father’s daughter.
I got through the pain and the grief and the gloomy days by laughing, loving, giving, and serving. By trusting in God, finding joy where I could, and spreading kindness.
Just like Dad taught me.
Happy Birthday, Dad!
Love you. Miss you. Always.