I turn 21 today.
Now I know what many of you may be thinking. “Ummm, I’m pretty sure you passed that milestone years back.” Some of you may even have known me for more than 21 years. Yes, that is all true. Think of it not as an actual 21st birthday, but more of a metaphorical one.
One of the differences between the two is that, unlike my first actual birthdays, I remember all of my first few metaphorical birthdays and truth be told they all kinda sucked. In fact, they doubly sucked because 21 years ago April 9th was Palm Sunday, so it was like the event happened twice each calendar year, once today and once whenever Palm Sunday rolled around. I’m not sure what the opposite of “looking forward to something” is, but that was what I felt when the calendar flipped to spring.
It was the fourth metaphorical birthday that didn’t suck, and that was because it didn’t anything. It was just another day, typical like all the rest, the only difference being my brother called me. Neither of us are big phone talkers usually, and I remember thinking when I got off the phone that it was odd he had called me out of the blue. It wasn’t until several hours later, as I was getting ready for bed, that it dawned on me what the date was and why he had called.
You see, April 9th, 1995 is the date our father passed away. And as horrible as it may sound, I think it was a good thing I had forgotten that year.
In those early years I held on to the date of his passing like it was badge of honor. My grief was something that identified me more than almost anything else. I kept the wound fresh so I could show my pain, remind the world of what I had lost. But by doing that I was dishonoring the memories I had of my father. The truth is that my father is no more that one moment in time – a huge and shocking moment, to be sure – than he is the body that’s buried out in Rocky Hill. And by finally allowing the moment to pass without making it some sort of macabre holiday, I freed myself to remember him for who he had been for 24 and half years in my life and not what he became for the last several hours.
Over the years I had an easy peace with this day. I would try to find someway to honor him. Maybe it meant going to a bowling alley, maybe it meant drinking whiskey and ginger ale while smoking a cigar. (It most certainly did not mean fixing a car however.) And occasionally I made the trip to Rocky Hill, but I always felt a little foolish. Like I said, that stone marker ain’t my father. I suppose I did it out of a sense of family obligation. By now my brother and mother were both living further south, and so I would go to represent all of us.
The other thing forgetting allowed me to do was to remember him more often. In those early years my only thoughts would be of his dying, so I would try to press the memories from my mind the other 363 days of the year. But now, having let that grief go I was free to think about him when I wanted to, when a memory came upon me, and cherish the memory for what it was. It became less about him dying and more about him living.
As I’ve gotten older, the date has taken back on a little more prominence. At 44 I am probably described as middle age, but with a father who died at 59 I can’t help but think that I’m facing the last quarter of my life. And as the years grow longer I see how much has changed from who I was those first early years. I am becoming old enough to be the father that looks back on the behavior and emotions of the son. It has once again become a milestone, not one for me to measure my grief by, but measure my growth, a birthday that is just as important to me as the one that comes in October.
I thought about all this today not only because of the date, but also because a friend of mine lost his father this morning. He’s older now than I was then, but I can’t imagine the pain and questioning and anger is any different, and I know that he will, for better or worse, always look back at today as the start of his new life.
Bonus track: My father’s favorite song was “Cat’s in the Cradle”, a downer of a song between fathers and sons if there ever was one, with of course the exception of Cat Steven’s “Fathers and Sons.” Instead I’m choosing a song by Jimmy Buffett. My friend is a parrothead, and this is a beautiful song about a father written by a son. Click here to listen.