Yesterday, August 14, 2021, would have been my dad’s 80th birthday. What an achievement it would have been. If you had asked me in the year 2000 what I thought his odds of hitting 70 were, I would’ve said they were low. Incredibly low. I might have even used the word “impossible.” The dude persisted, though; through so many ups and downs and health issues, he defied the odds. Over the years, there were times when I was sure my siblings and I were going to lose him. Absolutely 100% sure. And then he’d somehow rebound, and a week later he’d be sitting across from you, cigarette in hand, no less, giving you shit for some nonsense reason while you just shook your head in awe at his resilience.
I wish I had had the opportunity to bring him a Danish yesterday. Hell, I probably would’ve brought four of them. Six. I would have loved to have been able to wish him a happy birthday, to talk about the Phillies and whether their luck would hold, and to just marvel at him.
Maybe we would’ve hit up breakfast at his favorite diner, but more likely I would’ve spent part of my time with him explaining why, yet again, going out to eat inside a restaurant isn’t exactly something we should be doing in the era of Covid. He would’ve snarled and barked and called me names, and I probably would’ve gotten annoyed at him, but all that would’ve been okay. He would’ve still been here.
I would’ve gladly listened to his never-ending (and oftentimes incredibly repetitive) stories about the different Delco “legends” he grew up with, and maybe I would’ve held my tongue and given him a pass for somehow smearing food across his mouth. I would’ve celebrated him, laughed with him, and told him that I loved him.
80. It would’ve been a big one. It was a birthday he had earned the right to celebrate.
If you were talking with me after he was diagnosed with Covid and placed on a ventilator, everything I’m saying above may sound like complete 100% bullshit. And I’d get that, I would understand that reaction, because when he got sick, I have to be honest, I didn’t want him to survive it. He had fought his illness for so long, for more years than I really know. He had been unable to walk or even stand without support for decades. Every single motor function was disappearing. Every single fucking day was a chore.
When he left us in April, I know that it was his time. I know that he was better off dying when he did (though I’ll always hate HOW he died). I know that completely.
Yet, here I am, being selfish, wishing that I had gotten a chance to celebrate with him one more time.
So, because I didn’t get a chance to do that, I celebrated him in ways I could. Upon waking, I walked into the living room, where his ashes have been resting since his passing, and wished him a happy birthday. I talked with him for a bit, and then after walking the dogs around the neighborhood, I came back, placed his urn into a backpack and took him for a hike around the trail system at the end of my cul de sac.
Weird, I know. Can’t say I ever imagined THAT happening, but it did.
And you know what? It was fucking fantastic, because it was something I wish I had been able to do with him while he was alive but never could. Yesterday, though, we did it. We hiked together. I talked with him, out loud, the entire time. I told him that I loved him and that I missed him deeply. I told him that I was struggling for many reasons, and that his absence in my life was one of the major ones. I described the depression I’ve been experiencing.
As we walked, I also described the trail. I showed him Indian Orchards and identified the turn to Linvilla. I told him where it usually gets muddy, where things looked different, and I told him (while being completely out of breath) how much I hated the final hill that takes us back up to the street.
If anyone had seen me, I’m not sure what they would’ve thought, because there I was, hiking and chatting with someone who wasn’t there. But, you know what, at 6:30 in the morning, the only people on the trail where him and I. After 30 minutes, it was time to head back home. I was hot and sweaty and did not want to start sweating through the backpack and soiling the urn.
The things you fucking do sometimes, right? I mean, who thought I’d ever type THAT sentence?
After we got back, I opened up a pack of scrapple, and cooked it just like he would have: thin, with crisp browned sides while maintaining just a little bit of mush in the middle. Beth, Squirt and I sat down (with Squirt passing on the scrapple) and we ate our breakfast in his honor.
Perhaps the only thing missing was a Danish or four. Or six.
Earlier in the week, I did something I absolutely know, for sure, he would’ve hated. I got a tattoo in his honor.
Back when he was initially diagnosed with Covid, I had an appointment set up with my guy Steve at Black Moth Tattoo and Gallery in Ardmore. But because I was in an isolation room with Dad for a few hours, I quarantined in a hotel for a week. That same week, I was scheduled for a tattoo session with Steve. So I rescheduled. This past Wednesday, I finally sat for the session. And because of the rescheduling, I was able to ask Steve to add one more tattoo into the mix, and he graciously obliged.
My dad loved the beach. One of his favorite spots in the world was the observation deck of The Stockton Inn in Cape May, New Jersey; he’d sit out there with his siblings and talk and chat and laugh and love, and he’d sit out there all by himself and people watch.
He would often ask us to take him down. And we did, for quite a few years, but about 10 years ago his body just wasn’t able to handle the stress of being away from his apartment anymore. His experiences, and ours, became absolutely miserable, and after getting back into the apartment he’d swear that never wanted to leave it ever again.
But then a year or so would go by, and he’d start asking, “Hey, kid, what if I paid for a week at The Stockton this year? What about renting a house?”
It broke my fucking heart, year after year, to say no, to deny him that joy, because while he may have forgotten how horribly his body reacted to being away from home, I didn’t. I remembered.
Without going into unnecessary details, I just couldn’t take him down anymore. Just could not do it. Instead, when he would bring it up, I was stuck breaking his heart by denying such an easy wish to grant for someone even remotely healthy.
So, what did I do this week? I got a tattoo of an empty wheelchair on the beach at water’s edge. Cause, yeah. I miss him. And I wish I could’ve done more for him while he was here.
Happy birthday, Dad. I love you. I hope you don’t hate the tattoo, though I suspect you do.