This is a blessed day. It’s my Dad’s birthday. You’re right! It’s Oprah’s birthday too, but in our family, January 29th is all about Dad. Except when Mom had a cake made that included Oprah. That was in 2014, the year he turned 44-44. That’s what he called 88. Eighty-eight sounded old to him and it certainly didn’t reflect how he felt about himself!
A tradition of being in Minnesota for Dad’s January birthday
It seemed crazy to go to Minnesota at the height of winter but it was shaping up to be a tradition. I think it started the year before the Dad and Oprah birthday when Dad was turning 87. Birthday plans changed that year when we got the call that my beloved Uncle Chet had passed away. That was tough. He and Dad were brothers but they were best friends too. His funeral was going to be on Dad’s birthday.
We drove about seven hours in tricky weather to arrive in Minot, North Dakota the night before the funeral. My brother Kirk drove. A blanket of thick, wet snow fell throughout the day as we drove across the state. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Kirk finally said, “If you say this snow is pretty one more time, I’m stopping the van and you’re walking!” He teases me a lot but he doesn’t usually follow through on his threats. I didn’t stop my “pretty” comments.
I remember the snow-laden trees on the campus of Minot State University where my Uncle Chet’s funeral was held.
After the late morning funeral, I made some phone calls and found a restaurant in Minot that had a room big enough to hold our extended family for dinner that night. I invited my cousins and they all came. It really was quite lovely. My uncle was a very public and esteemed man in the state of North Dakota. It was nice to have this private time together honoring Chet, celebrating Dad, and telling stories.
Another year, another birthday not going as planned
I was back for Dad’s birthday three years ago but that’s not what we’d planned. Mom and Dad were going to spend Dad’s birthday with us in California. Now wasn’t that so much smarter! I’d made lots of plans. Our family deserved a break. We’d suffered the loss of my brother Todd three months earlier. It had been so tough.
Once again, plans changed with a phone call. Mother fell. At home. She had a brain injury. At first, it sounded like she wouldn’t be able to fly for a couple of months but then overnight her status changed and it was questionable whether she’d live through the week. My twin brother and I got on a plane to join the rest of our family who was by her side.
She lived through the week. Within a couple of weeks, Mother was showing improvement. The neurologist encouraged me to stay strong. Based on Mother’s history she thought we’d see a nearly full recovery within a year or so. As soon as Mother was out of danger she’d be transferred to a rehab hospital.
And then she got worse. On Dad’s birthday. Rushed back to the ICU with internal bleeding into either her lungs or her abdomen (they couldn’t tell), they pumped eleven units of blood product into her over the course of the day and evening. Every update from the doctor was, “We’re doing everything we can.”
That night the family was gathered in the hotel across the street in Dad’s suite. A cousin had brought homemade decorated cupcakes early in the day so we’d have something to celebrate Dad’s birthday with. It was ten o’clock at night and no one had touched them.
Would the good Lord let Mother die on Dad’s birthday? Please, God, no.
She made it! The combination of a valiant medical effort, her guardian angels (and ours?), and her body’s ability to kick in and help out saved her.
We were elated. In her room, we couldn’t take our eyes off of her. This was a miracle. She turned to Dad and said, “Will we make it out of the woods?” He took her hand in his. He said softly, firmly, “Yes, Mother, we’ll make it out of the woods.”
But she didn’t. A few weeks later, she died. I lost my mother and in many ways, I lost my father too. His grief had no bottom. His family, the family members he lived with, were both gone. He was angry at my brothers and me for pressing him to leave the lake home and move into an assisted living facility. We wanted him to be safe and watched over. He wanted independence. He wanted his old life back.
I think it was during our April visit last year when Brent and I were with him and things were different. After church one day (they have services in one of the buildings where he lives) we followed as he rode his motorized scooter down the hall and into the front sitting area where the ladies had gathered before lunch. He pulled up, put his scooter in neutral, crossed his arms and said, “So what are you fine people up to? Are you staying out of trouble?” That was their cue to give him their wisecracking remarks. I was witnessing a miracle. I watched, listened, and grinned. In my mind, I said, “You should see him, Mom. He’s coming back to his old self!” His old young self.
I was back in August and then again at the beginning of this year. I decided to come before his birthday this time. It was so fun to hang out with him and the other residents he greets with smiles. “They’re good people here,” he says. He still talks about going back to live in the lake house in the spring but I feel confident we won’t be having any serious conversations about that. He’s accepting this chapter, not fighting it.
I feel like I’ve gotten a huge present from him on his 92nd birthday. I’ve got my dad again, my witty, bright, engaging dad. I gave up on ever having that after Mom’s death. He was unrecognizable to me and I felt nearly invisible to him. His interest in me and my career which he always loved chatting with me about was gone. I’d lost my biggest champion.
But now with every phone call, he asks about me, the kids, Russ, my work. He loves hearing about the kids and their travels. We talk about sports (my brother, Brent, has got him watching professional sports on TV, something he never did before), his cat and my cat. He sends me newspaper articles from the Forum like Mother used to do.
He asks about my health. When I was being diagnosed with that mysterious rare disease last fall, feeling so scared, he said, “Brenda, I’m on the powder keg with you.” And I knew he was. I was not alone. My dad was at my side.
We talk about Mom and how much we miss her. I share how it’s impossible to sing songs at church without feeling her arm next to mine. My right arm and her left arm used to touch as we shared a hymnal together. It makes me cry. Dad tells me in turn that when he sings songs at church, he hears her voice singing along close to his ear.
We talked yesterday. He’d been to church in the morning and had a great afternoon with my niece Jessie, my brother Kirk and his wife Wendy. He said, “Brenda, I have nothing to complain about and everything to brag about.”
My kids and their mates along with my brother Brent were up for dinner last night so everyone passed the phone around to give him best wishes.
Tonight I read him some of the Facebook comments people left when I posted a picture of him today. Now he wants me to come back; he’s ready to get a smartphone. He thinks he’s starting to understand better how they work. “Okay, Dad, that’ll be our next project,” I said.
“Yes, but remember I’m ninety-two now so you have to come soon,” he said. He knows how to work me!
I couldn’t be happier. My dad, the giant of a man whom I’ve cherished all my life, had the best birthday ever.
I bet you have father stories to share. Please do. I love every one of them, whatever they are!