Everyone has birthdays. Like it or not, they creep up on us as we live our lives in the middle of the spin cycle responding to the daily challenges presented to us by ourselves and others. Turning around this past week I discovered another one. No surprise; it falls shortly after Christmas, which serves as the tocsin of its impending arrival. It is the final push for the end of the year which is decked in tinsel, colored lights and a fantastic amount of expectations and stress. If I can survive the holidays then I am entitled to another year here on earth.
This year, I turned the same age as my father was when he died, or so I thought. I was mentioning this to my sister when she corrected me, reminding me that he died in May and his birthday was not until September, so in actuality, he was 55. This means that I have now officially outlived my father. It was a strange feeling to know that I had done this and that now, I am absolutely on my own in an unknown land.
It also reminded me how little I know about him. A while back I found his obituary in the New York Times, one little paragraph giving the basic facts of birth, death and employment- he worked in New York City, dying in the Chrysler building. Architecture and Art Deco fans frequently bring up the Chrysler building as being one of the great edifices of the age, and while I can intellectually understand this, it remains for me a monument of miscommunication and lost opportunity.
While my mother was, and is, an enormous presence in my life, I have almost no real emotional remembrance of my father. He was there, occasionally; he travelled a great deal to afford his family a better standard of living than his own in a copper mining town in Nevada. He loved golf, hated seafood, and his soft-spoken nature was frequently overwhelmed by the drama going on in the household. He was a typical Irish father, brought home the bacon and expected his wife to tend the home and raise the kids. Our most memorable interactions involved a disastrous attempt on his part to teach me to box, his disgust with how I played golf, and, when I was very little, climbing into his lap to have my good night sip of his scotch.
Due to lack of proximity, we were on the East Coast and his family remained mostly in Nevada, we seldom saw his family. Today, I know there are relatives in Nevada, as one of his brothers had a mess of kids, I have no relationship at all with any of them. Growing up, it was as though that side of the family never “counted”. No efforts were made to get us to know them. My father became my maternal grandparent’s adopted son for all intents. Since my father seldom spoke, we had to rely on piecing together bare snippets of what his life was like. What I have gleaned over the years sounds fascinating but we’ll never know……… he seldom talked about it. The only interaction with his siblings that I recall was at his funeral when three of them came east. One of them asked for a chance to view him in the coffin because he had not seen him in many years. They were shadows.
My Higher Power understood what I needed as respects adult male guidance and after my father died when I was 17, I had the benefit and blessing of one of his friends, a WWII vet who stormed the beach on D-Day. While not always the most tactful, his advice, constructive criticism, his humor, enthusiasm for living and his own example more than filled the role of surrogate dad. His patient and long suffering wife smoothed the edges and remains my best girlfriend. They are a remarkable pair. I doubt I could have accomplished much if I had not had my mother’s and their help. Getting me into adulthood was very much a tag-team process. All three of them worked extraordinarily hard to get me where I am today. Words cannot express my gratitude to them. I the early 1990’s I acquired an older brother by self-appointed adoption and he and his family have provided some of the craziest and happiest family moments I have enjoyed.
So this birthday was in some ways about birthdays past for me. I looked to see what had happened then and what is happening now. Much that is good. I have my family, my family of choice, my friends, and numerous others who enrich my life beyond my wildest expectations.
Living right now is not perfect; dare I say for anyone. I am NOT unique in that respect and that’s absolutely OK, it’s what it is. I am now in virgin territory, which remained unexplored by my father. My past tells me that those that I need to help get me through this foreign land will always be there and that it will all work out fine.
It always has.