My Dad died five years ago yesterday, and tomorrow is his birthday.
It’s like I’m in the crème filling of a grief cookie. I am joking, of course, but there is some truth to it.
When my Dad died, I felt grateful—is that the right word?—for the fact that his death and birthday were just one day apart. It was like a packaged combo of grief, one horribly sad and bittersweet week in early March every year.
Unlike the previous years, this year I didn’t have a sense of overwhelming dread in the days leading up to the anniversary of my Dad’s death. I didn’t have an anxious countdown of each day, as I inched closer to That Day. Maybe because I was so busy with the kids? Or maybe it’s because five years have passed, and there is some sense of normalcy about That Day?
When I woke up yesterday, I thought maybe the floodgates of sadness wouldn’t open. I wondered what I should wish for. Do I wish for the sadness to wash over me quickly, so that I could get on with my day? Do I wish for the tears not to come, though that seemed impossible? Do I wish to leave it alone and feel everything, for as long as it took? Do I wish to skip the sadness and head straight for the place of gratitude and thankfulness, where I knew I’d ultimately end up? It is hard to know what to wish for. So, I waited.
Then my family started sharing happy memories of my Dad in our private family Facebook group. I felt myself cracking, and the dam opened up. I missed him. I missed his hearty laugh, his heartfelt notes, and his funny humble-brags about all his kids and grandkids. I missed seeing him smile. I missed seeing how much he loved my Mom.
I am thankful to have my siblings, their spouses, and my Mom to share our memories about my Dad. We also share our grief in missing him, but it comes in different waves for each of us. Five years later, I think we all understand that our shared grief is like a dance. Our moves are not synchronized, but when one of us declares that it’s time to rise, time to move, we all follow their lead and make our way into the dance with them. We dance with them through the grief, until they feel like their dance is done. We take turns leading and following, but we’re always there together. For that, I am so grateful.
I think that tomorrow, on the tail end of my grief cookie, my family and I will eat carrot cake. It was my Dad’s favorite cake; the rest of us hated it. I remember on my 30th birthday, my first baby was just one week old, and my Mom and Dad were staying with us. My Mom asked what kind of cake I wanted. I told her: anything but carrot cake. She sent my Dad to the store as she helped me situate baby Lucy for nursing and taught me how to take care of my newborn. My Dad came back from the store with tons of groceries, making sure the fridge was stocked and that we’d be eating well in the days to come. And he got my birthday cake, too. What kind? Carrot. I don’t know how that message got lost in translation to him, but he was happy to have gotten me that birthday cake. He wanted my birthday dinner to be special, as he and my Mom always had.
As I think about tomorrow and his birthday, I again find myself asking what to wish for. Do I wish to remember everything about him, even though it is so hard, knowing he’s not here? I do. I wish for that. Because the alternative, to not go through that pain of remembering? That is to forget or disregard everything about him that was funny, loving, and wonderful. I will wish to remember all those little things that made him great, and I will wish that my kids will know those things as well, even if they don’t actually remember him. It is to me one of the hardest truths of life that the deeper you love someone, the harder it is when they’re gone. So yes, I’m sure I’ll cry—it is inevitable. And when that is done, I will wipe my eyes, and I will sit with my kids and we will eat carrot cake, and I will show them pictures of the Dad I knew, the one who is loved and missed. After I’ve told them all about him (again), I will wish that we could all end our lives so full of love—both given and received. That is perhaps the greatest gift anyone can ever receive, so I will wish for that, too. Tomorrow and always.