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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Another birthday passed, a better year in sight

I’m normally a huge birthday hog. I love them. Perhaps it’s my attempt at making up for all the birthdays that passed with just a simple chuckle from my dad. “We didn’t celebrate birthdays in my day,” he’d say, year after year. “Everything was simple. The boys would get new pants. The girls would get a new dress.” That’s it. Of course, this is what I remember from my preteen/teen years. There are pictures that show, when I was a child (anywhere between 1 and 8), I did, indeed, have birthday parties. And my dad was part of them. I don’t actually remember these parties, though. So year after year, I make a big deal of my birthday. I don’t want to celebrate one day; I want a whole birthday month!

But this year, I was content in smaller scale celebration. No big party for me; no drinking, no late night. I didn’t even harp on everyone the way I normally would.

First of all, I can’t (or rather shouldn’t) mix alcohol with my meds, and second of all, I’m just too tired. My birthday was Wednesday, and after working all day, the last thing on my mind was going out to party. No sir. Instead, we went to my mom’s house and had a beautiful dinner with my mom’s signature dish –lasagna– and relaxed, talked, and laughed. It was perfect.

The day was actually one of my most relaxing birthdays, and though I was tired from my son’s recent night wakings, I really enjoyed it. I was surrounded by love. My students, the day before, surprised me with a small cake and sang “Happy Birthday.” My husband and son started my day with gifts, cards, big hugs, and a sweetly sung “Happy Birthday.” Friends and family called and left messages on Facebook. At every moment of the day, I felt loved. And that’s what birthdays are for, to celebrate the life of those we love, and to celebrate a year passed and to hope for a brighter, better year.

So I’m thirty-two now. The last two years have been a fast-moving, nausea-inducing ride. There have been too many unwelcome changes in my health that have hurled me into a third-life crisis. But this birthday brings with it hope for a better year.

Cheers!