Last week, my dad turned 62.
He did so with little fanfare, facing the quiet that has come to mark such occasions in a life splayed with yearning and the specter of tarnished dreams.
It is not that he is alone — four sisters and a brother are all close-by, and there are friends and acquaintances with whom he socializes from time to time. But years of illness, the loss of his job and his extended absences from St. Lucia while getting medical treatment in Cuba have made him an intermittent recluse. And despite the fact that it’s been almost two decades since he and my mom separated and he returned to St. Lucia while my brother and I stayed here, special occasions, like birthdays and holidays, have always remained, for him, a reminder of what he has lost, our physical absence like the sting of a continually abraded wound.
Sometimes, it’s been challenging for me to meet him in that place, where sorrow and loneliness subsume any opportunity to create or choose something different for himself. There have been times when the birthday or Christmas calls, the Father’s Day or Easter greetings have felt like potential minefields, our mutual longing for a heartfelt connection tangled as much in the heavy words we don’t speak as in the gusts of cheer that can ring hollow, despite the best intentions. Both of us, at one time or another, have left these calls fighting back tears or amid flares of anger.
It is painful to know I cannot be there for all the occasions that would typically be shared with my brother and me, while various circumstances have prevented him from traveling to the states. Though it is frustrating to watch him resist that reality, when I reflect on our disparate lives — me casting my “Merry Christmas” wishes from the warm, joyful cradle of my celebrations here into his own aching sphere of solitude, for instance — I can appreciate why he often feels so bereft…The package and card in the mail, the hug pressed through the phone line, the love that can only slake so much across the distance are all meager substitutes for the faithful constancy of togetherness that I enjoy with my mom and my brother and his family.
Yet while I can make the occasional trip to St. Lucia to visit, I cannot change my father’s circumstances, or force the positive outlook more easily adopted from my optimistic, less complicated perch. So I’ve been learning to detach from the outcome of our calls, to keep from them the weight of expectation that can diminish what I most want to offer: the assurance that he is thought about and loved and that I am envisioning only the brightest and healthiest for him, even when he struggles to do so himself.
And sometimes, from this open, unfettered space, we are gifted with a moment, cut loose from the wreckage of what once was and the cumbersome hope for what could be, that feels utterly pure.
When I called my dad last Monday to wish him happy birthday, I got his voicemail, and so left a message singing to him and offering a blessing not only for the day but the year ahead. Though I know that many a birthday has been spent alone, without any celebratory fuss or fun, I wished for something different, as I often have, though this time I allowed myself to feel only the joy of giving what I could in that moment.
Later that night, I tried him again and was almost disheartened when he thanked me for my earlier call and then shared that it had been a fairly lonely day. But he didn’t sound despondent. Instead, he proceeded to tell me about the many moments that, despite his lonesomeness, had brightened his birthday: the Mass where he raised his voice in gratitude to God, the sister who stopped by on her lunch break from work with a hug, the other who visited despite her own ailments and fatigue, the money gifted to him from those who could barely afford to give…and most surprisingly, an offering from the sister with whom he’s long had a contentious relationship. When she appeared with a sugar apple from a tree my grandmother had planted that hadn’t born the fleshy, custard-like fruit in a while, she presented it as a gift from their late, beloved mom. Listening to how touched my dad was by this gesture, I savored the moment, happy for all the acts of caring that had spilled into his day.
Just the night before, he had told me about another urgent trip to Cuba he was planning, as doctors were worried about the condition of the prosthetic esophagus he’d been fitted with several years ago, following a diagnosis of esophageal cancer. And yet here he was, his voice as warm and bright as I’d heard it in months.
I couldn’t help but wonder what his life would be like if he counted such blessings every day. If he could look for things to be thankful for, even amid the stress and sorrow, what would shift and open up? And once he began counting, would that eventually lead to a bounty where so much had been a burden? But I realized I was at it again, wanting my perspective to be his, trying to transplant my philosophies and approach when he was doing the best he knew how to do.
In bending toward some projected future, I was also robbing myself of the opportunity in front of me, to share in his immediate contentment.
As we wrapped up our conversation, he began to sing “Happy birthday to me,” his voice low and tender, sweetened by all that had greeted him so gently that day.
I joined in… “Happy birthday to you,” as he continued, ours a scratchy harmony of gratitude and appreciation, of love washing away all but that moment. Sometimes, this is all we get. A small act of grace, a splinter of light, a perfect petal to tuck amid the heart’s bruised memories. And sometimes, that is enough.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times