Monday, January 16, 2012

January 15th .... and 16th

Al and I had just put dinner on the table when the phone rang.  It was our first attempt at Beef Stroganoff and we were joined by an old family friend.  It was the summer of 1982, before the days of unlimited calling, voicemail, caller id and telemarketers, so when the phone rang, we actually answered it.  It was likely to be important. 

Dad(~1955) in his natural habitat.
On the other end of the line was my mother.  She began by apologizing for not calling me sooner.  Dad had been losing weight and generally not feeling well and she had finally coerced him into seeing a doctor.  She hadn’t wanted us to worry needlessly, but now the test results were in.  Dad had lung cancer.

I listened to the details of the treatment plan; I listened to her tell me that I shouldn't worry, that Dad had good doctors and so on.  I hung up the phone, stunned by the news.  Our friend offered to reschedule our dinner, but I said no.  Even though the news was bad, I could not imagine that my Dad -- a larger-than-life kind of guy -- was in any real trouble.  True, he had lived life a little too hard, smoked a couple of packs of Camels each day, but, this was my Dad. He was only 59.  He’d be ok.

At the time, Al and I lived in Ithaca, New York a six hour drive from our parents in Connecticut.  That summer, we made regular trips back east as Dad underwent radiation therapy, and initially the signs were pretty good.   The tumor shrank, and while the treatments took their toll, I held out hope that like many other obstacles in his life, he’d overcome this one too.

Throughout the fall, we kept in frequent contact with Mom who provided updates on Dad’s condition.  Maybe she didn’t want us to worry, or maybe her close proximity to him blinded her to his continual decline. Or maybe I just didn’t want to hear what she was telling us.  Whatever the reason, we were wholly unprepared for what we encountered when we returned home at Christmas.  By then, the cancer had spread, Dad had lost about half of his body weight and was very weak.

Al and I stayed at my parents’ apartment for the week between Christmas and New Years, trying to do what we could to help them out.  We had to get back to school after the holiday, but we returned to Connecticut a week later to visit again.

As we were leaving on Sunday evening, I said to my Dad, “We need to go home now, but we’ll be back next weekend.”  He replied, “No, next weekend is your birthday.  You should stay in Ithaca and have fun.  I’ll be fine.”

Of  course, by then it was clear, even to me, that he would never again be fine. Thinking we'd be back in a week, but not wanting to argue with him,  I leaned over to give him a hug. He was absolutely skeletal and I was afraid I might actually hurt him, so I just gently patted his shoulder.  He said, “Give me a kiss goodbye.”  As I did so, he reached up and with surprising strength, hugged me close to his bony frame.

He looked at Al and said “You too.”   Al leaned over for his farewell hug and kiss.

As we left, Mom walked us to the door, promising to call us if there was any change in Dad's condition, promising to take care of herself, promising that she’d let us know if we could do anything at all to help.

We cried all the way back to Ithaca. 

As the weekend approached, I called Mom, who told us that Dad was hanging in there.  She said that he really wanted us to stay in Ithaca for my birthday.  I wasn’t really in the mood for celebrating, but a new friend, Sandy, who did not know it was my birthday, had invited us to her house for pizza and euchre.  A big snow was predicted.   We decided to stay in town and promised Mom we’d be back the following weekend.

We did go to Sandy's house and stayed late playing cards.  By the time we left at 2 a.m. or so, there were 6  or 8 inches of new snow, with more coming.  

The call came at 7:30.  It was my brother with the news that Dad had died during the night.  I told him that we’d leave as soon as possible for Connecticut.   The snow had continued to fall. Al turned on the radio and we learned that all of the roads in the state of New York were closed, but as soon as the NY Thruway was open we began the long drive back home.

That was January 15, 1983, my 25th birthday.  I always tried to disentangle the grief of my father’s death from the birthday cake and presents, but it has always been difficult.  One year, when my Mom called to wish me a happy birthday, I was too tired to fake it and told her that birthdays were not very happy for me because Dad had died on my 25th birthday.

She replied adamantly “No, he didn’t.”

I agreed that technically she was right, but it was in the middle of the night on my birthday, so it was the same thing.

She said, “No, it wasn’t the same at all.”

Then she told me this story.
Dad had slept most of the weekend, and had been drifting in an out of lucidity. Early in the morning of January 16th, Dad woke up and said, “Betts, what day is it?”

Mom answered, “Sunday.”

“But what day ?”

“January 16th.”

“The 16th? "


“Yesterday was Debi’s birthday.  Did you call her?”

“Yes, I talked to her.  She and Al stayed in Ithaca.  They went out for dinner.”

“Did you say happy birthday for me?”


“Today is the 16th?”


"You're sure?"

"Yes, Sunday, January 16th."

He was silent for a couple of minutes and then said,  "I am going to rest now.”

Mom told me those were his last words.  The last thing, the most generous and possibly the nicest thing my Dad ever did for me was to, very deliberately, NOT die on my birthday. 

My birthday is still complicated, but because my Dad did not want to burden me, I try not to be burdened.  Yesterday was my birthday. My Dad died 29 years ago today.   Even now, I miss him daily and I  feel sadness at this time of year, but  I also feel a deep sense of gratitude for this last kindness. 

I am also grateful for the many birthday wishes I received yesterday.  It was a good day.


  1. I remember talking to your Mom, my Nana, as you were sitting beside her in Saginaw, shortly before her departure. She wasn't able to talk, but I knew she could hear me because the character of her silence shifted as I described the different ways I loved and thought about her. Now I understand why you needed to be so close to her in her final hours. 

    My conception of Papa is a mix of the nifty -- drafting table and lots of tools -- and silly -- that post-nasal drip technique to escape the dining room to watch the game -- and grandparental affection ... joined with the experiences my family relates. 

    Thanks for telling me a little more about my grandfather. 


  2. Nice. I had forgotten how young you were when he died. A beautiful tribute to a man who did not die on your birthday.