Happy Birthday, Papi

Today is my father’s birthday. Or, rather, it would’ve been if he were still alive. He’d be turning 82.

Next month, on Valentine’s day, will be the fourth anniversary of his passing. Four years. My son’s age–he was six months when my father left this world of conflict and pain and frustration.

My father wasn’t one to celebrate birthdays. He never really saw the need. In fact, one of his favorite anecdotes, about birthdays, went something like this: “When I was growing up, I never had parties or anything of the like. No. It was simple. I needed pants, so for my birthday, I got pants.” I wish I could remember the exact way his words that left his mouth, but now the memory melts into the idea of what he said: no parties, just pants.

That never stopped me, though. I do like parties and celebrating–always have. So on his birthday, I would either make him a card or I would spend hours perusing the greeting card sections at Hallmark (or Publix or Eckerds, now CVS), and then I would pen what I thought was a beautifully written sentiment. And it usually was, except it was in Spanish, and my Spanish, though good, wasn’t perfect. When I gave him the card on his birthday, then, I grew accustomed to him reading it, pen in hand, correcting my grammar in the greeting card. I have to say, though, it stung a little, and sometimes, I would fight the tears that threatened to overcome my eyes. It was a card, damnit! I’d think. Just a card. I wanted him to read past the errors (which weren’t that many!) and get to what I wanted him to know: that despite the differences and hardships and fights, I still loved him.

But love, for my dad, was different. I realize that now.

For gifts, oh that was difficult. What do you get a man who doesn’t want anything? The only thing he wanted were cigarettes–Winston ones in the red and white box. Some birthdays, that’s what he’d get. He’d already made it clear he wasn’t going to stop smoking. Not after he went months without smoking, after his leg was amputated (is it weird that I can’t remember which one right now?) and he was in temporary hospice. Not after all his doctors kept regañandolo because he was slowly killing himself. No, he wasn’t going to stop smoking. He was a man of stories, anecdotes to make his point. So for this he’d remind us that when his mother, my grandmother, was dying of breast cancer, and all she wanted was a cigarette, he fought everyone to give her one last “gusto”– “She was dying anyway; who are we to deny the dying?” That was his motto, I guess, and since, in his mind he was dying (though his “dying” lasted well over a decade), he felt we should heed his argument without question. So on his birthdays, we would sometimes relent and wrap up a box of Winston cigarettes in bright birthday wrapping paper, place a big bow on it, and present it as his birthday present. Those were his happier birthdays, I think, and in his later years would elicit a series of chuckles as he put on his shirt, grabbed one of the cigarettes and his lighter, and rolled outside of the apartment to smoke his birthday gift.

I think of him often. Not only as a daughter thinking about her dad, but as a kindred spirit who is just beginning to understand the workings of that man. I didn’t understand while he was living; I didn’t understand when, as a teenager, I saw him break things and scream and make my mom cry. I didn’t understand his pain and in not understanding, I couldn’t help him. My mom, I think, understood him. I am only just beginning to understand as I tread through my own journey of illness. And I wish so many times he were still alive and I could ask him questions. I miss him.

So happy birthday, Papi. We love you.

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