Today my father would have been sixty years old. We might have held a party for him at home this past weekend, and I would have brought the boys home for a week to celebrate and kick off summer.
We would have gone to opening weekend at Fort Foster and sat in the sun, and he would have held the boys’ hands and walked them down to the wade pools to the left of the pier and showed them how to locate the sneaky crabs, and surely Sully would have jammed his fat fingers at the first he saw and then promptly tried to either eat it or smash it full of glee and aggression. Sawyer, though, would diligently follow them around and thoughtfully collect as many as he could in a pail, asking the whole time where we could keep them as pets.
He’d walk them down the pier and teach them how to jump from wood to wood, and tell them they wouldn’t slip through the cracks, as they have heads like their father, and then he’d laugh at finding an opportunity to call Chris Jack, as in Jack O’ Lantern, like he did the one and only time he met him the year he died.
He’d walk them to the end of the pier where the old men fish and they’d all get on their knees and he’d he show them how to tie chicken to a string and drop for the big crabs, and the boys would shrike and squeal and clap and should when they got one, and they’d shout “I WANT TO HOLD HIM!” as my father pulled one up, and then he’d look across to me and smile and we’d remember without words how thirty years ago it was me excited to pull crabs from the cold and dark water at the end of the pier.
We’d swim at the beach at the bottom of our favorite spot and we’d play ball and run back and forth chasing waves that crashed and would surely town their chubby legs under. We’d play in the sunshine on the grass and pick flowers and go hunt through the overgrown paths looking for entrances to the underground forts used a lifetime ago. I’d be Nancy Drew again and they’d be the Hardy Boys and my father would laugh hard and robust, like a lion, and he’d exude a pure joy I never doubted my boys would bring him.
We’d pack up the car, sun-kissed and sweaty, immediate nap time facilitated by the salty water and excitement overload. Back home, we’d wake the snoring bears and sit on the back porch with no pants or shoes on and watch the Red Sox on the TV and take turns standing at the grill, helping my father flip the perfectly marinated chicken and steak and I’d stand beside him as I did a million other times in my life and I’d tell him about my new job and the people I’ve met recently on our crazy adventures around the world.
He’d tell me how proud of me he was and I’d tell him how much I loved him and we’d hug, hard and long with my head against his chest, and I would smell his soap and hope that one day my boys have children that associate Irish Spring with the smell of family. I’d ask him if he was ok and he’d tell me not to worry because we’re Smiths and Smiths are the strongest of the strong and then he’d look me in the eye when we pulled away and with watery eyes he’d say proudly, you’ve done alright, kid. I’m proud of you.
We’d gather in the living room around him and bring out a cake with enough candles to remind him he was older than dirt and he’d act surprised and light up with the job of a million fireworks and his smile would brow bigger the louder we sang and before we’d even eat the cake he’d be yelling about where his presents were and he hoped we didn’t show up empty-handed acting cheap and that this year it better be something good but he never cared what we brought because we were there and we loved birthdays and it was his day. We’d put one of the boys on either side of him and tell them to smile to take a picture and he’d toss up his hands to show how old he was, much like Sawyer does now when asked and we’d have yet another picture of the man whose his birthday, his “natal week”, more than anyone else I’d ever meet.
This is how this year should have gone, as the other eight that have passed since he died, and I’m quiet and sad today because I want to buy my boys an ice cream cake filled with candles to light after we have dinner so that we can sing loudly the birthday song for Grandpap, and hope he hears us wherever he may be.
I asked Sawyer this morning before school if he’d like to have cake for Grandpap’s birthday and he lit up like every Christmas tree I’ve ever seen and said, “Yes! And we can have presents! And we can call him on Facetime?” And he looked at me excited and inside I felt more defeated and broken than I could possibly type. With a lump of concrete in my throat and a fake smile unmasked by sadness, I reminded him quietly, “We can’t call grandpap, Soy, remember? Grandpap lives in the clouds where he watches us from up in the sky every day,” and he only responded “Oh, ok, Mommy,” like he remembered but I knew he had no idea how to comprehend celebrating a birthday of a life of a person he’d never meet.
We will still have cake, though, and we will still sing, and loudly, and then at bed before I tuck them in for a night of sweet dreams, I’ll tell them more stories about Grandpap, Mommy’s Daddy, a man who would have loved them more than any birthday cake in the world.
And when they’re fast asleep, I’ll move to the back porch and sit under the stars for a glass of white to be alone—alone to remember my father and his infectious roar and his childlike smile, and his joy, and every small thing about him that I try not to think about on the normal days. I’ll cry all the tears I keep in the secret geyser of sadness that only bubbles over on these days that I can’t keep below the surface.
I’ll look up high and talk to him out loud, telling him what I wish this weekend could have been and I’ll tell him all of the reasons I miss him and I’ll beg him to give me a sign that he’s here with me, and that he still loves me as much as I love him. I’ll be patient with my pain and then wipe my face and breathe deep, reminding myself to be proud I survived another year without him.
Happiest birthday, Dad. I’ll look up tonight and find the brightest spot in the sky, because surely that’ll be the cloud you’re looking back from.