Birthday dinner for my father by the mouth of the Don, Aberdeen, July 23, 2012
Birthday offering and the quiet river mouth before sunset, July 23rd, 2012
Sunset over the Don near the estuary, July 23, 2012
Water on the shore and the luminous sky, Aberdeen city beach, July 23, 2012
This past Monday was a difficult day; July 23rd would have been my dad’s 64th birthday. A few days previous, when talking with my mama, the Beatles’ song, When I’m 64, got annoyingly and depressingly lodged in my head, but I didn’t mention it to her, lest she suffer the same fate, and also because it would hurt her even more, for what would she not give to still have him there, growing old with her?
My dad wasn’t the sort of person to get too caught up in birthdays. Unlike my mother, who likes to have her birthday dinner and presents on the actual anniversary of her birth, who takes great care in that sort of festive commemoration, my dad didn’t seem to mind if you gave him gifts on the day, or when the celebrations happened, or even if you weren’t there that day. He was quiet and laid-back, and being the centre of attention never appealed to him, so grand gestures were politely refused and festivities beyond a quiet dinner (usually involving barbecued things, pizza, chocolate desserts finished with a little rum or whisky) never really occurred.
I think my mama always had trouble accepting his lack of desire to mark the occasion. Rather mischievously, she poked fun at his reticence to observe this occasion. She never did anything like take out an ad in the newspaper proclaiming ‘Lordy lordy look who’s forty’ or have fifty vulture-statues skulking all over the front lawn. However, on July 23rd, 1988 forty black balloons adorned the garage door. (They popped in the heat of the early morning, causing him great alarm). In 1998, fifty colourful cut-out paper fish (courtesy of her grade three students) appeared dangling from tree branches on our front lawn. He took these all in stride, and I think he was secretly amused by her sneakiness. Nothing happened in 2008, but the next year when we were in Hawai’i for my sister’s wedding, we had dinner at a restaurant with an aquarium. If it was your birthday, a diver would swim into the massive tank to feed the fish while you were eating, and hold up a birthday sign adorned with lettuce and seaweed; all the manta rays and wrasses and triggerfish would then swim up and nibble the vegetables in your honour. Needless to say, he was most pleased with this one.
So his birthday—while never terribly important for him—feels probably more momentous for us. I’m finding it especially difficult because last year, his last birthday, in some ways was the most noticeable beginning of his severe decline in health. I had arrived home from fieldwork shortly before, and would be away camping on the actual day, so I remember on the 21st planning to make homemade pizza for him, one of his favourite things that I cook. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for celebrations, he has never lacked an appreciation for a good meal, and being true to my maternal lineage, giving someone nourishment makes me happier than anything. So generally birthday gifts from me included dinner requests.
I made the pizza to his specifications, and it was so sad, he could hardly eat them. It upset him too. The next day he was too tired to come out to lunch with his mother, and his appetite was even more depleted. On his birthday, two days later, he slept most of the day. And though he’d certainly lost the desire to eat many times over the course of his treatment, this seemed different, more acute than other times. This was only a month and four days before he passed away. And it’s hard now, not to think about all the feelings of last summer, of witnessing all the suffering he went through and how it was really impossible to do anything to make him comfortable, to make him happy, to make anything a little easier for him. It’s also difficult for me to believe that it has almost been a year already since he left.
The seasickness of grief continues to come, sometimes when I might expect it, other times catching me fully unaware. This is fine with me. I need to, I want to grieve. I don’t suppose there will ever be a time when I won’t grieve for him; I still miss my grandmother, my baba, who passed away six and a half years ago now, and I think of her every single day, because she shaped me, and now she is in me, somehow, I can feel it. However, the grief with her was never as acute as it is for my dad, and one of the main reasons is that she was ready to die. She said so herself, she told us months before she was ever in the hospital; she told us she missed her own mother, she missed her husband, and she’d see them soon, because she wasn’t planning to live another winter. But my dad wasn’t ready to go at all, and for some reason now sometimes he seems further away.
I still search for ways to explain to people that I am still grieving. I try to get over my resentment and frustration with people who just don’t get it, that grief is not a post-funerary sprint that’s intense but quickly over. It’s also not something to just ‘get it all out’ and then ‘get over’. I try to remind myself that the loss of very close people is something not everyone has faced and sometimes experience is the only way to understand. I try to restrain from punching someone in the nose/exchanging harsh words when they say (sometimes with kindness but other times with a weird sort of dismissal and condescension) something like: ‘it’ll get better in time’ or ‘time heals all wounds’ or another variation on that platitude. Time has little to do with these feelings. I know that in time my grief will change, it will manifest itself differently and it will not necessarily feel as it does now, but I will never stop grieving. And I am not going to apologize for that.
A memory from last summer that is both incredibly painful and also immensely dear to me is the evening before the morning he died. We thought he was getting a little better, because for the past two days he had been able to eat a few bites of food, and drink a little more too. I’d helped him eat before, adjusting the straw in his glass, cutting things up for him over the past days, but there was something so striking, so shattering about that meal that I never realized would be his last: I was cutting up the chicken parmigiana into tiny little pieces, and he would open his mouth like a baby bird (or human, I suppose) and I would feed him each little bite as my heart just broke, thinking of how he fed me just like this when I was little. Here comes the airplane, into the hangar! I think I was shaking. I was so devastated, yet so profoundly grateful that I could help him—that he would allow me to help him—with this. And he was eating! He ate more than he had for a week, I think, and he was so pleased, and so was I, and I promised him I’d come the next morning to help him with his lunch. But he passed early in the morning, and that was it. No more meals together. What I would not give to cook him something, share another dinner with him, what I would not give--
So his birthday this year – how do you celebrate with the dead? In the Ukrainian tradition, there are always graveside picnics, eggs and vodka, along with special favourites of the person you are honouring. But that wasn't my dad's heritage, and he never liked a huge celebration anyway. So out of respect for his character, there was no big party for this one, his 64th. But I went down to the ocean, to the mouth of the Don river where I could see the currents of freshwater streaming out as the ocean lapped in as the tide rose in dialogue. And I lit a candle, and left black licorice (the Pontefract cakes I'd always buy him at the sweet shop), and chocolate with almonds melting beside the flame. I had a dram of whisky in his honour, drank to him and shared it with the sea, then let the tears come. And this sharing of food with him was a nod to the lunchtime that day after that never happened after he passed. (Because I still need him, and I will still feed him, when he is 64.)