Another Kind of Birthday--with My Dad

I just turned 45 in August. It’s a great age to be—distantly approaching the round-up year of 47 where I might as well be 50, but not there yet. I’m beyond the poor twenties, out of the tired thirties, safely in my fun forties.

A year ago, on my 44th birthday, I remember my cell phone ringing.

I could see by the caller ID that it my sister.

We don’t call each other much—we usually text or email because we never seem to be free at the same time. We did a lot of texting over the last six years, usually to communicate about my dad’s care, his medications, when his next care review meeting was.

But this was my birthday, so I knew that was why she was calling.

“Hi!” I said, enthusiastically.

“Happy birthday!” A gruff, gravely male voice responded.

I paused. Who was this? It was supposed to be my sister.

It only took me a minute to realize it was my father.

My dad, who was 84 at the time and in a nursing home, hadn’t called me in years. Not only did he not have a cell phone any longer, but he didn’t have the capacity to follow through on the multiple steps. He’d have to think, “I want to call one of my kids,” then ask a nurse for help, find the number, and then say hello and actually talk when I answered. Sometimes he would just be quiet on the other end, distracted by what someone else was doing in the hallway or by something on T.V.

Even calling him was a production—I had to dial the switchboard, get put through to his floor, have a nurse available to answer, transfer it to another line, who would bring a cordless phone to him, and he’d have to be awake in the first place to even take the call. In the last year of his life, I stopped trying to call him at all because it was easier just to go visit him once a week.

So on that day last year, I started to cry. Just because he was on the phone, and because he called to wish me a happy birthday.

My sister was there visiting, having dinner with him.

When I asked what they were eating, he said, “We’re having mushrooms.”

Never mind that they were actually having lobster rolls. Never mind that his words were a bit slurred due to multiple strokes and TIAs. Never mind that he didn’t even know it was my birthday until my sister told him. It was my dad, and he was calling me.

I asked him how old I was, and he guessed 45. He was close.

“Remember, Dad? You were 40 when I was born, so my birthday is always your age minus 40? Remember how when I was 40, you were 80, and that was the only time you’d ever be twice my age?”

That math was way more complicated than he could handle, even though he was an engineer and had always been good at math. In the last years of his life, he never remembered how old he was, so the comparison wasn’t useful. 

“Are you having a good time”? I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “We are having a lot of good food and merriment.”

That made me smile. I don’t remember him ever saying “merriment” before in his life. He was not a guy that would typically talk about merriment.

Forget cake, forget presents, forget that shot of tequila that a friend brought me when he found out it was my birthday. I will always remember that call. Especially now that my dad has gone, a simple mention of merriment is worth celebrating.