My father was never big on birthdays when I was growing up. I don’t remember receiving many birthday presents from him. In fact, I was never sure if he actually knew the dates when my sister, two brothers, and I were born.
That wasn’t the only reason for tension between us. He never made it to an open house at school and couldn’t have told you who my teachers were. I played the French horn in countless concerts, ran in dozens of track meets. He never came. (He did, inexplicably, make it to all my piano recitals.) He wasn’t home much either. When he was, there were usually two modes of communication: arguing or silence.
There was no question that my father had a heavy load to bear. My mother had died of Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 39, ten years into their very loving marriage. At a time when men were not the hands-on caregivers so many are today, he was left to run a business and raise four small children. I was the oldest; the youngest, my sister, was a four-year-old with cystic fibrosis who wasn’t expected to live past the age of seven.
But at the time, my father’s burdens didn’t matter much to me. I knew he was sad. I knew he missed my mother terribly and had too many responsibilities. But I believed he should’ve been able to handle them better. As a father, he should’ve been able to put his own grief aside in order to take better care of us. He was an adult, after all, and we were only kids. He lost his wife, but we lost our mother. His was still alive.
I resented his sadness. I resented the fact that he was hardly ever home. Most of all, I resented the fact that I was running the household by the time I was 14. And this resentment lasted a good long time — through college and my twenties, into my early thirties.
And then I had a baby, and everything started to change. I saw the way my father loved my son, how proud he was of me as a mother — and how much it tore him apart that his wife wasn’t a part of it. I could see the pain on his face sometimes when he watched me hold my son, much the way my mother must’ve held me.
Now that I was a mother, I also realized how hard it was to be a good parent. I tried to imagine what life had been like for him on a day-to-day basis after my mother died — a grief-stricken single man trying to make ends meet and raise four little kids, one of whom was in and out of hospitals constantly. He could’ve sent us to live with my grandparents — many men would’ve — but he didn’t. He kept us with him, and he tried his best. Maybe his best wasn’t always very good. Maybe it wasn’t how today’s fathers would’ve handled it. Maybe it wasn’t how I would’ve handled it. But it was what he could manage at the time. And that, I told myself, is all we can ask from anyone.
My anger toward my father started melting away, first slowly, then faster, and then, by the time my son was a toddler, it was gone. I regularly made the five-hour drive with my son to see him and sent him photos of my son between visits. It was obvious how much joy we brought my father, and I was grateful to him for being a loving grandfather.
And then, when my son was two years old, my father’s health took a turn for the worse. Years earlier he’d been diagnosed with peripheral vascular disease, but his illness had been more or less under control. Now, though, he was in tremendous pain and needed surgery after surgery to unblock the clogged arteries that were cutting off blood flow to his legs and neck. The worst came in the fall of 2002, when an emergency bypass in his leg didn’t work.
When a nurse told me what would happen next — that he would have to have his leg amputated — I doubled over in the hospital hallway. It was one of the most painful moments of my life, because I simply couldn’t bear the thought of my strong, tall father having to cope with the physical and emotional effects of something so awful. I could not stop crying.
He did have his leg amputated — not once but twice: first below the knee, then above. He spent two long periods in a rehab center, learning how to walk with a prosthesis and get around his house, where he insisted on returning to live by himself. I kept traveling back and forth to help take care of him, and when I couldn’t be there I sent care packages: books, art supplies, chocolate. My brothers and sister helped him too, each in their own ways.
My father was astonished at the way we all banded together to make sure he got the proper care and was never alone during or after surgery. “I can’t believe you kids are doing all this for me,” he said to me once, tears in his eyes. “Dad, what did you expect?” I asked him. He really thought we might abandon him, that the mistakes he’d made during our childhood would keep us from him when he needed us. I think that was the moment when he knew, for the first time, that he was truly forgiven and had managed to raise four children who would do anything for him.
A year after the scene in the hallway, I was again in the hospital with my father. He had just had surgery — his ninth operation in 12 months. It was my birthday, but I didn’t tell him; I didn’t want him to feel bad that he’d forgotten or guilty because I was spending my birthday in the hospital with him.
The morning passed, and in the early afternoon he sent me out of the room to get something: more sugar for his coffee, maybe, or an extra blanket. When I came back, he was sitting up in bed with a grin on his face. Next to him on the tray table were a card and a cake with “Happy Birthday Andrea” written on it. And at the foot of the bed was his favorite nurse, Jackie, who’d helped Dad carry out his surprise. They started singing to me, and soon all the other nurses joined in — the ones who had seen my father at his most vulnerable, who had made him smile when it didn’t seem possible, who had let me stay long after visiting hours too many times to count.
My father died two years later. I still think that birthday was the best one I ever had.