It was sunny on July 14, 1982. That I remember clearly. And what I always remember, what I’ll never forget, is that on that on that eve, my father’s fortieth birthday, he came home with forty black balloons from work.
My father hated balloons.
And when I say hate, that’s an understatement. The screech they made when you ran your finger over them. The squeak they emitted when they moved against one another. How if you expanded them too much with your breath (or helium), you risked the chance of them exploding. And the annoyance that if you barely let your grip go at the wrong moment, all the expelled breath you had put into them would be wasted as they zerberted their way into the sky, only to fall to the ground deflated.
But on that day, my father’s coworkers threw an over the hill party for my father.
The fact that he came home with all forty balloons rather than letting them go or leaving them in his office at Fleming Corporation in Oklahoma City until they deflated and could be tossed out spoke volumes about who he was as a person. What he did after he parked his car in our drive way and stepped out, his gait hitched from an artificial hip, said even more.
I greeted my father with open arms and excitement, because it was his birthday, and I’d decorated a cake to celebrate and I was excited. And after he hugged me and asked about my day, he stepped to the trunk of his car and inserted his key (remember cars that actually needed a key inserted into the lock???). And like magic, forty black balloons popped out. A friend from down the street had been up to play, and she and I watched with wide eyes in pure amazement as balloon after balloon appeared.
Dad closed the trunk of his car, and counted twenty balloons out carefully, which he handed to my friend. The other twenty, he handed to me and warned us both with a wink about being carried off by the helium.
Dad hated balloons, yet he brought them home to his five year old daughter. And upon seeing her friend, he divided them in half so she wouldn’t feel left out.
It was just one of many times he put himself on the back burner for the sake of others. It was just one of many examples of which I have to draw on what it means to give to others.
I’ve felt a strong absence since my father’s passing last July. And certainly, his birthday is a date I’ll always remember, most especially his last birthday, the day he took the fall that ultimately led to the end of his life on this earth.
A few months ago, a new friend and I got into a conversation about my father, and he asked how old I was when he passed. When I said thirty-seven, my friend told me he was only twenty-two when he lost his father, and thank God I got the time I had with my father. And like many other people, he warned me the loss would crop up when I expected it and when I least expected it. And he was right: there’s an ache when my children do something I’d normally call my father to tell him about, there’s an ache when I achieve something I’d share with him, there’s an ache I can no longer call him to annoy him about how he’s feeling or drop into his room to sit with him. There’s an ache that the house I hated is no longer a house I can go into. There’s an ache he won’t get a seventy-third birthday. That there won’t be seventy-three black balloons, a bacon cheese burger from sonic to share, a mock cupcake made out of meatloaf and mashed potatoes I’ll trick him into eating thinking its cake and he’ll bitch about it. There’s no more expired food to tease him about, no more debates about the philosophy of life, no more eye rolling about my latest tattoo and my newest hair color. I’ll never again watch him pull my oldest into his arms while he asks her to tell him about life.
There’s an ache instead.
And I don’t want the ache gone. Because if the ache were gone? That would mean that the parent I had who fought tooth and nail for my life, who put me first, who loved me unconditionally, who taught me right from wrong, who taught me that the true gift is in the giving, who taught me to go after what I want balls to the wall didn’t exist. If it didn’t hurt, it would mean I had been less loved, less cared for in my formative years. It would mean I hadn’t had the experience of a father who had no problem telling my softball coach he was full of shit and hadn’t had the gift of a father who would well up with tears when I would play “Memories” on the piano. It would mean I never would have had the experience of being told repeatedly that someone always had it worse. It would mean I wouldn’t have had the blessing of a father who worked late into the night and went in before the sun rose to work to sit with me in the hospital at age fifteen to keep me from feeling less isolated. It would mean I wouldn’t have had the knowledge that money doesn’t matter but your heart does.
And as much as this ache hurts, as much as I wish it were a year ago when my father still drew breath enough to ride my ass about getting back into college, I’m grateful for it. And as much as I would give my own life to avoid my own childrens’ pain in any way shape or form, I hope one day my children experience this type of loss and this type of ache.
Because I’ll have been the right type of parent.
Happy Birthday Daddy. I love you.