Yesterday was my birthday until 13 years ago, when my dad unceremoniously usurped it for his memorial day. For several years after, my brother Mark would call on my birthday and lament on my behalf. “Dude. I was thinking today. It SUCKS that Dad died on your birthday. MAN, of all the days out of the year, that SUCKS!” We would devolve to laughing raucously about all the jagged edges on that final practical joke.
But I don’t think Dad would have been happy about me dealing with it by calling it a joke. I imagine he would have gotten really grumpy and growled at me, letting me know that he would never do something so awful to me as a joke, and that death is never funny. Then he would have shaken his head ruefully and walked away with his eyebrows raised, grumbling the whole while.
Dad’s ending wasn’t especially pleasant. He went to the hospital for a major emergency heart surgery — a last-ditch effort to save his life — and never came out. On my birthday that year, about three weeks into Dad’s hospital stay, I got a call from Mark in the morning. I assumed he was calling to say happy birthday to me. Me me me. I saw his name on caller ID as I answered the phone. “Hey Mark, whassup?”
“Dad’s gone.” Mark sounded weird, subdued.
I thought he meant Dad wasn’t in his hospital room, or maybe he’d gone home. “Where did they take him?”
“No. Dad’s gone.”
I shook my head. My eyes rolled around. Mark sounded so confused. How in the world could Mom and Mark lose Dad at the hospital? I felt really grumpy as I snapped at Mark. “Well go find him. Go to the nurse’s station and ask them where they took him.”
Mark tried a third time. “No. Carla. Dad’s gone. He’s dead.”
Oh. That kind of gone. Now I understood why Mark sounded so off. He was calling me from the bathroom in the hospital room where Dad had died, just moments before.
Crying, wailing, tooth-gnashing. You know the drill.
One of my Korean uncles, my mother’s brother, was there. He asked Mark for the phone. “Hi Cahla. Yah. So you get plane ticket and come home.”
It was two days after 9/11. This directive rubbed me all wrong. I yelled emphatically into the phone. “Get a plane ticket? What kind of advice is that? You think you need to tell me to come home? ON WHAT PLANE? WHAT PLANE DO YOU THINK I SHOULD FLY HOME ON. THERE’S NOT A SINGLE PLANE IN THE SKY. HAVE YOU BEEN WATCHING THE NEWS. WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT TO ME.”
My uncle waited patiently and silently until I was done, and then he spoke gently, with kindness in his voice. “Yah. Okay, Cahla. I give phone back to Mahk now.”
I did make it home on the first day commercial airlines were back in the air, but my family had to delay the funeral a couple days or else I would have missed it. I was thankful for it. One thing my mom didn’t delay was Dad’s death, and I was even more thankful for that. She had gotten a call from the hospital to let her know Dad had arrested; he was on full life support and would die without it. She went to the hospital and, without hesitation, signed the forms to set him free. When I thanked her later for being quick and strong in this decision, she told me it was no more than the simple kindness Dad would have shown even a dog, to end such senseless suffering. It was an easy choice.
I found it hard to accept celebratory birthday words for quite a few years after. One year I said so to Mom when she called to wish me a happy day. “I can’t celebrate my birthday anymore, Mom. This is the day Dad died now.”
She answered me sadly. “I know, Carla. But this is the day you were born, so for me it will always be a day of celebration.” I remember those words every year, and I try to convince myself that celebrating my life matters as much as remembering Dad’s death. I might almost be there.
My family brought it home for me this year. I woke up to tiny-armed snuggles and two sweet little voices wishing me a happy day. Jesse was a little upset that she didn’t have a chance to shop for a gift, but she made do with other resources. She wrote a card.
Taped to the card, in a small folded piece of paper, were a piece of quartz and two tiny pieces of sea glass — prized summer finds, which Jesse took from her treasure chest to give to me.
As I marveled over Jesse’s generosity, Nick got a curious look on his face. He ran upstairs and reappeared a few moments later. He handed me a bracelet that I had given him months ago. I didn’t know he had saved it. He spoke proudly. “You gave it to me, mommy, and now I am giving it to you.” He ran upstairs again and came back with even more — a thank you card from his preschool teacher that opens into a flower, a perfect little shell he found this summer, and a butterfly picture Jesse had colored for him. Horded personal treasures, all.
I tried not to cry over these gifts of the magi. I asked Jesse and Nick to put the gifts back in their respective treasure boxes. “They’re mine now, but I would like you to safeguard them for me.” That worked for everyone.
Then it was an ordinary day in a life. I was delighted by many well wishes on facebook. Anthony took the kids to swim lessons. I took Jesse to a birthday pool party. When Jesse and I got home after the party, I was surprised by a kitchen festooned with balloons. In addition to normal birthday balloons, Nick had insisted on a “Tangled” balloon as big as a boogey board, and Anthony chose a giant, phallic pickle, “Another birthday. No big dill.” Inexplicable, and just the right kind of silly. There was no room left for grumpy. Anthony baked a strawberry cake – one of my favorites. He’s not a confident baker, so there were many apologetics, but it was delicious and properly frosting-free. We ate the cake amidst the balloons, and I was happy.