When my dad turned 50 my mom threw him a big surprise party. Our backyard was filled with all the people who loved him: United coworkers, neighborhood friends, family. My sister and I had been the decoy. My mom sent us to Target with him and told us to stall as long as we could. It turns out this is an easy task for two tweens. We puttered around, going up and down every aisle, eventually hanging out in the bathroom for an insanely long time while my poor dad waited outside, his blood pressure slowly rising. By the time we left he was seething but it was the only time I was not phased by his anger. We were doing this for the greater good.
And it was all worth it when he rounded the corner behind our house and saw all the people who’d gathered to celebrate this milestone. They had a funny tee-shirt for him and all sorts of “over the hill” paraphernalia. He made his way around our backyard, in his element, laughing and greeting all his people. Later they would all pass around a basket collecting cash for the parking ticket my mom had incurred in the chaos of trying to get everything done for the party. The party, as all my parents’ parties did, lasted well into the summer night.
Celebrating birthdays wasn’t a thing we did very well for my dad, so that’s probably why the 50th stands out. I have no idea what we did for his 60th. I was wrapping up my time in New York, a month away from getting married. Did his birthday get lost that year, wrapped up as we were in wedding planning? I’m sure my mom and siblings had a dinner at home for him like always, but that was probably it.
The only other birthday I remember for my dad wasn’t an actual birthday, but the acknowledgement of one. Shortly after my dad’s 63rd birthday he was gathered in our kitchen with his older brothers. I watched them quietly raise a glass of whisky, toasting their father, who had died at 62. As the youngest, my dad was now the last one to make it past that cursed age. Now all three men had celebrated the birthday their father never got to see and there was a murmured recognition of this birthday’s significance for my dad and for them all.
Sometimes I wonder if one day my siblings and I will gather in the weeks or months after my youngest brother turns 67 to acknowledge that we made it, that we all passed that milestone my dad never did.
Today would have been my dad’s 70th birthday. As I type those words, tears flood my eyes. I'm heavy today, anxious and burdened. Seventy seems particularly significant and, for the first time in a while, I find myself grieving a little more bitterly than usual over this missed milestone. It makes me sad that he never got to see this age, that I will never know what my dad was like in his seventies. For whatever reason that number, 70, feels more significant than the other three birthdays we’ve marked without him.
I wonder what we would have done today. It’s easy to say now, on this side of knowing how quickly and without warning a life can end, that we would have planned a big celebration, another backyard blowout, a cake with 70 candles, and “really over the hill” decorations everywhere. In all likelihood though, we would have done what we always did: dinner at my mom’s, a simple toast to my dad, and a few gifts. Either way this longing, this longing to be able to mark in some large or small way my dad entering into a new decade, making it of another year older, this longing is crushing today.
I hate that I don’t know what my dad would be like in his seventies. I hate that I can’t throw him a big party today, or at least share a pint of Guinness with him. I hate that he is forever stuck at age 66 while time keeps moving. The sun will rise and set on June 9, 2017 but this day won’t be the day we want it to be. Instead it’s a “would have been” day. The day my dad would have turned 70 if he’d made it that far. The day we would have celebrated him wildly.
I haven’t had a day like this in a while. A day of bitter, hot tears and sharp pangs of longing. I don’t know why this particular milestone feels so hard today but it does. I’m sad. And kinda pissed. Much of the past three and a half years of grieving my dad has involved deep sadness over the loss of all the good he encompassed, sadness over the people who won’t know him, over the ways we no longer get to experience his love and care. Today, if I’m being really honest, I’m mostly just mad that he didn’t get to be 70. That we don’t get to celebrate this passage of time with him. It’s shitty and it sucks.
And I know days like this give me a choice. I can let my heart stay hard and bitter in it. I can stay mad and shake my fist at God for not letting my dad at least make it to 70. Or I can let it teach me and grow me. I can use it as a reminder that we are not promised milestones forever so we should celebrate the ones that come with abandon.
I have chosen the latter as often as I can, and I know I will continue to do so today. But I will also let myself sit in the anger too. I will let myself long for what “would have been”, even if I know that longing can never be met. The only healthy way around days like these are through them, through the truth of what is hard to the hope of the good that can be found in hard things.
I will get my dad’s favorite burgers for lunch and maybe even down the fries with a Guinness. I’ll be with my mom and my sister tonight. We’ll imagine what celebrating my dad’s 70th birthday would have looked like and we’ll be sad that this particular story will never be told. And tomorrow will be a new day.
Happy Birthday, Dad. 70 would have looked good on you.