Today is my dad’s birthday though he will spend it in heaven. There may be cake and ice cream and perhaps his favorite dinner of Italian sausage, mashed potatoes and spinach. There may be friends to help the celebration as so many of their dearest ones are up there too, but either way he and mom will be there together blowing out the candles. Dad’s favorite dinner is sort of a weird one I know, but it definitely packs more sustenance than his next favorite which is a sleeve of saltines with peanut butter and a side of the New York Post’s sports section.
Don’t ask why I’m thinking so much about dad’s food fav’s here, but perhaps it’s because meals meant family gatherings in my house. They were times where all was right with the world. When we knew we’d all go to bed and wake up the next day and all would be right with the world. Passing the butter or the salt gave everything a sense of OK-ness. Things were safe and we were cared for. The dinner table was family and I was part of that family. Part of something.
During the week it was often just mom and the kids at the table, but when dad was there mom always made something he liked. She catered to him in a way I’m sure only they understood, always making sure that when he was home nothing even remotely resembled chicken, since dad had gotten so much of it in the service and could barely look at a plate of it anymore. As for the sleeve of saltines with Skippy, that was of course devoured on dad’s own time and wasn’t served by mom.
I’m thinking of sitting around that table night after night. Of wondering what mom had gotten us for dessert (we always got dessert). Of laughter and the way my brothers goofed on one another and how when the telephone rang we were not allowed to answer it because meal time was sacred. I’m remembering the polite rituals of napkins on laps and knives put down before taking bites and politely passing what was asked for around the table. Recalling how the house was always quiet except for our laughter because the television was absolutely turned off before sitting down.
Those rules, those meals, those moments, I wish I could have them back, because I’m sure I could treasure them now if only. I simply didn’t know how to treasure them back then and believe I would have if only I’d known how much I’d wish for them now. I never understood and surely didn’t even realize until right here, right now, how much they formed me.
Memories come up of how much I hated eating vegetables while being reminded of poor starving children in the world. I would gladly have sent my portions to them if I’d thought of it. Of setting and clearing the table and washing dishes and taking out garbage and never knowing that was all part of something bigger. Of family.
I am also thinking of the last meal I had with mom. It was last year in August (just a few days before dad’s birthdate) for her 80th birthday. We drove the 4 hours across to Florida’s west coast to visit and take her to dinner, but since she was feeling “punky” to use her word, we opted for takeout. Her choice was Cristinos pizza and salad with tiramisu for dessert.
I remember laughing with her as she awkwardly held slices of floppy pizza and tried to catch the cheese with her bite before it fell off to the plate in one warm and runny swoop. I remember her child like smile as she devoured the tiramisu along with my nervousness as she did, worrying like always about her diabetes going into a tailspin. It is clear as day to me how in an instant as we ate dessert I shifted from terror that the massive amount of sugar was so unhealthy for her to “She’s 80, who ‘shives a git’ (mom’s slang for Gives a shit) at this point?” I remember laughing out loud as it hit me and how I asked if she wanted more. By now she’d earned the right to have whatever the heck she wanted.
I remember leaving that night with a sense of heaviness that I couldn’t put a finger on. I will never forget the foreboding sense that this might be the last meal I had with mom and later realizing that it was. At some time in the night mom had a few mini heart attacks and slipped into a catatonic state. She never woke up. And you’d have to be in my family to understand the humor in this, but my brothers accused me of killing my mom with tiramisu. My heart aches as I type that. She died 2 days after that 80th birthday at 9:30pm, two and a half hours before the dawning of dad’s date of birth.
That was one year ago yesterday and we all absolutely believe mom went to be with dad as his birthday present. In fact, we were all standing around her bed (my son having flown in from New York, my brother, sister, sister in law, niece, nephew, Pabs and I) holding hands as we decided to sing “Happy Birthday” to my dad a few hours early. In the middle of the song mom crossed over to heaven and her wedding band slid from her finger.
The enormity of the timing was nothing less than miraculous. We all deemed it as such. The grace of the passing was felt by all of us and the immediate sense of loss yet loveliness made our sobs uncontrollable. That date, the one of her death, happens to be my fiance’s birthday and as a present we gave him my dad’s wedding band, the one mom had worn since his death 9 years ago and had never taken off her finger until it slipped off as she crossed over. It was an important moment for him and we choose to believe a symbol from mom. There are so many emotions around all of it my fingers are heavy and clumsy on the keys as I type.
And so today being dad’s birthday brings all of those memories up in a rush. And yesterday being my fiance’s birthday, besides being the anniversary of mom’s death, I have felt weighed down. First of all I still carry some bizarre guilt about his birthday going by the wayside last year, but also because I’ve been torn between celebration and grief. Weighed down with the confusion of all of it. A weight on top of me that I’ve wanted to surrender to but can’t. Because life ends but life goes on and there will be more meals to share with others. More moments of family expressed differently. And more birthdays.
And so, as we sat and celebrated my fiance’s birthday last night on the eve of mom’s death, we were actually honoring all the birthdays and I did my best to be in the spirit of continuing life, of birthdays and not loss. A steak dinner, coincidentally at one of mom and dad’s favorite places, shared with the man I love. And the card he opened was signed the way dad always signed mom’s “with all my love.”