Today would have been my father’s 83rd birthday. I always called him on his birthday. Fathers’ Day and his birthday. He called me on mine. Three conversations a year was our quota. Anything over that was gravy.
It wasn’t that we drifted apart. We were never really close. He was off serving God & Country while I was navigating my childhood and I acquired interests he never really understood. Dad was sports and spit & shine. I was literature and arts. Two interests we did share were History and Classical Music. Dad liked the Russian composers. I’m partial to the Germans, myself.
My father called me on my birthday this year. That was two weeks before Fathers’ Day. Our phone calls were weighted toward June.
His call left me with mixed feelings. I welcomed it; don’t get me wrong. Toward the end talking left him winded. It was obvious.
We knew he was dying. A week earlier I had flown out to my parents’ Virginia home to see him one last time alive. I don’t know what I expected.
When I was a younger man with a chip on my shoulder and a diet of too many television melodramas I fantasized some slate-wiping catharsis with the airing of grievances and salty-hot tears soaking shoulders’ embrace tying neat little bows of Hallmark resolution.
Then something happened. I jumped in the Big Pool. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. I gained a whole, new appreciation for what my father had achieved in his life.
After learning of his prognosis I made a point to call him more often. I know. The Prodigal Son Reverses Charges. Mostly we’d talk about whichever Kansas City Sports team was playing or a thumbnail sketch of whatever job I was working. The content didn’t matter. It was just … connecting. Just filling in some of the blank spaces.
They were about the only two topics remaining to us. I stopped letting him lure me into political discussions. They didn’t matter. I was never going to persuade him of my convictions nor knock him off his bullet-points. He wouldn’t even cancel out my vote again.
I tried to fill the line with conversation that required little response. “You don’t have to say anything, Dad. Just listen. Save your breath.”
He used his precious breaths to call me on my birthday. He gushed how good it had been to see me the week before. It was our only face-to-face visit in nearly a decade and even five days was not enough time to compensate either of us for the lost opportunities of conforming to whatever fantasy Family model we had.
He told me he was proud of me. He couldn’t see me as I pressed my lips together in a grim, stoic expression and allowed myself to accept his words.
Inside my head I wanted to scream, “Why? What have I ever done to make you proud of me?” Take your pick from the matrices America uses to judge worth and I never checked off any of the boxes. I graduated college without them footing the bill, I guess there was that. In 1981. That’s not much.
My father was proud of me until his dying day. Regardless of my ability to comprehend that pride.
I turn 180° and look at my own daughter and well with pride myself. Dad felt about me the way I feel about her. And that’s all that mattered. I understood it with my heart, if not my head.
Dad called me on my birthday and wheezed out his love and pride for me. It still hurts to remember it. I called him toward the end of the week. We spoke about the Royals. This would be the year they took the pennant again.
Fathers’ Day was still a week away. Not quite a week. Sunday upcoming. I got the call Dad had passed in his sleep. Fathers’ Day came and went without much ripple in my consciousness. It was still too soon.
Today I’m fingering my phone without a call to make. It would’ve been my Dad’s 83rd birthday. I miss him.