My Father’s Birthday

We were sitting in the breakfast area of the Hampton Inn with my father.

It was Labor Day weekend, and this year, my father’s 70th birthday fell on the Saturday of that weekend. Two years ago, R’s mother had thrown a splashy, expensive party for his father when he’d turned 70.  We didn’t have enough people to pull together anything like that in any location other than Florida, and I knew my siblings could never afford to travel there anyway.

With Z in college in Pittsburgh, and him performing at ever home football game in their marching band, it put another layer of difficulty in scheduling such an event.  Until finally one day, looking at the football schedule, it dawned on me:  we could do it in Pittsburgh.  My father had made a habit the last two years of attending at least one of Zach’s football peformances each season; I could just ask him to attend this one.  The gift could be the surprise of having my sister and brother and their families there; they had never really shown an interest in coming to any of Zach’s performances in the two years he’d already been in college here, so it would be an easy surprise. I had tried to think back to the last time we would have all seen my father together, with all of our children; it would have been six years prior when I’d had everyone to my home in Ohio for Thanksgiving.

I looked down at my phone on the table while my father and daughter went up to the buffet for more scrambled eggs and hash browns.  It was my sister’s text buzzing on the screen; the plan was that she and my brother would come down while we were eating breakfast, casual as anything, and my father would just look up and see them all there.  Unfortunately my father was an early riser and a fast eater, and we were nearly done with breakfast.  My brother, as usual, was taking too long to get himself out of bed and presentable enough to appear in public.  I furiously texted her that if they wanted to perfect moment of surprise that they had about five minutes left.

“Who are you texting so early in the morning?” my father asked as he returned with a second plate full of food.

“Oh, it’s Zach,” I lied smoothly.  “He just sent a good morning message and wished you a happy birthday, and that he’ll see you after the game.” On early game days, when the game started at noon, Z had to report to the stadium at 7 am.  There was no time for a leisurely breakfast for him.

My phone buzzed again.  I grabbed it before the words flashing on the small text window could be seen.  “Wow, Mommy, you never text Zach.  That’s weird.”  I flashed her a “shhh help me with the surprise” glare before reading the words “on the way” on the screen.

I sat back and watched my father and my daughter together quietly, allowing myself a moment of reflection.  We sure hadn’t had an easy road, my father and I.  My parents’ messy divorce had left our family in pieces, and when the puzzle started to take shape again, I’d firmly been placed on my mother’s side.  There were months that would go by without my father and I speaking in high school; I’d spent my teenage years fantasizing about the kind of father I wished I had.  My teenage crush on my English teacher, my fascination with 80s formulaic family comedy TV, even my obsession with a rock star could probably all be traced to the fragile relationship with the man sitting across from me.

He hadn’t been perfect.  When my brother’s anger issues swallowed me up in their path, my father had been slow to react, and I’d blamed him for it. When my father moved in with his partner, I grew resentful that they spent more of their money on themselves than sharing their good fortune with us kids.  And certainly, my father’s move out of state for a promotion just six months after my mother’s death had been a hard pill to swallow.

But he never stopped trying.  He had wanted to be a good father because his own had been a horrible one.  He just didn’t know how.  Looking at him talking with my daughter now, I marveled at how far we’d come.  I knew now that I could count on Christmas in Florida with my dad.  I knew that he’d always come to a football game for Zach while he was in college.  He came to Melinda’s first communion earlier this year, Zach’s graduation several years ago, the birth of all of my children. Somehow, for better or for worse, he’d figured it out.  He was there when it counted.

“Hey Pops,” I heard sheepishly from behind me.  It was my brother, standing there with his own son.  My sister, her children and husband brought up the rear behind him.

“Happy Birthday Dad,” my sister said, standing alongside him and leaning down to give him a kiss on his now bald head.

I watched as my father’s face went from recognition, to astonishment, to full on emotion.  His face grew red and the tears that I hardly ever saw him shed, slid slowly down his face.  He smiled, and stood, and the hugs began.

We’d come a long way, all of us.

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