My father just turned 50.
For my mother’s 50th, I flew home and surprised both her and my sister. The girls’ birthdays are always a big deal, as Mom and Kar are December 9th, and I’m December 12th. It’s a week of insanity as we all celebrate The Aging of the Women together.
My father’s birthday is almost always a bit more low-key. The strong, silent type, my father is content to watch the madness His Girls cultivate from the safe haven of his armchair. Every now and then, someone will cross a line and he’ll be invoked to bark out, “GIRLS! Listen to your mother!” But for the most part, you can rely on my father to chuckle quietly to himself while intently watching fishing shows.
He had no idea I was coming.
Being engaged and far away from my family has been a bit hard, and not just because Mom reminds me every time that we talk that all she wants to do is watch me twirl around in my wedding dress and hug me. The reason I love James so deeply is because he and I share what I see to be the key lasting ingredient in my parents’ marriage: mutual respect and mutual admiration. They’re best friends, at the root of everything else. It’s the only foundation to build a marriage like that on.
James and I have that. I want my father to see it, so he knows his biggest little girl is going to be well taken care-of.
We arrived home Friday night, late, having had to drive after Amtrak botched our train reservations. James was unhappy. I was unhappy. Starving, exhausted and miserable, we pulled in to Kristin’s driveway. I marched up the sidewalk and hit the door with an open palm. “I’m coming in!” I yelled as I swung through into the kitchen. The door was left unlocked.
The doors at home, they’re always left unlocked. It made my weary heart sigh with relief.
Roughly 15 seconds later, I was holding my GodChild, who was not interested in going to bed. All the anger and frustration and stress that’s been so prevalent in my day to day these past couple months, simply melted. He touched my face and gave me a big smile.
But the real payoff hit the bank right around 4am, when I heard my father’s bedroom door open. We had dragged ourselves out to my parents’ house after Mom called to tell me that Dad was asleep (and then again to tell me that Grandma was getting impatient). There were hugs and stories and food all around, quietly, until it was time to finally surrender to sleep.
I didn’t even bother to set an alarm.
There are sounds so familiar to you that your body naturally reacts to them. Children laughing. A tea kettle crying. The oven timer chiming. Christmas bells. My father’s bedroom door opening in the morning is a sound like that. I didn’t need an alarm. I would wake up because I knew this routine by heart.
I heard him walk down the hall quietly, so as not to wake my mother, and the gentle click of the bathroom door. I jumped out of bed and crammed my feet into my slippers. I tiptoed across the hall, and gently rapped on the bathroom door.
My father opened it and stood there, backlit by a pool of light. I blinked. He blinked. He tilted his head to the side and blinked again. Was I really there?
He may have thought I was my sister, or even my mother. The freckles, the blue eyes and the same brown hair make us hard to discern from one another when you’re still so close to the cusp of sleep, and the darkness is still playing tricks on you.
“Happy birthday, Murph.”
He pulled me in to one of the biggest hugs I’ve ever been blessed to get. “This is the best birthday surprise, ever!” he managed to get out, in between squeezes.
And right there, in that moment, it all melted away. The arduous journey. The impossible stress. The overwhelming reality of life right now. There, in that moment, seeing how happy a simple homecoming made both my father and I… It was all worth it, every stressful step it took to get there. All the debts life had taken from me that week, repaid.
Dad went to work, and Kristin and the baby came to play. We all went to the Saranac Brewery in Utica to celebrate the achievement of a milestone and the engagement of James and I. We feasted on crab legs and told old stories and were all reminded how easy and natural it is to come back together as a family again.
The missing pieces of my heart, all found, gathered around a table to pay homage to the man who made it all possible.
Through the years, my father has taught me to work hard and play fair and maintain your values. Strength does not have to stomp to be felt. Voices don’t need to be raised to be heard. Sometimes all you need to get through is sheer stubborn resolve and the willingness to persevere on through, never giving less than your best. He is one of the strongest, noblest and most gentle people I’ve ever encountered, with a subtle and ironic sense of humor that I see more and more in myself and my sister every time the three of us come together.
He and my mother, they gave me the gift of knowing that it looks like to be a strong foundation for a family.
For the record, he is also a pretty impressive fisherman. And I can’t think of anyone who I’d rather celebrate having achieved 50 years of life than my extraordinary dad.
Dad, Kar, Mom, Kristin, Ryan, Myself, James, George
We never take photos together. Nevermind that James looks half-asleep and I did not bother to do my hair.