today was my father’s birthday

close up photography of concrete tombstones

He would have been 71.

I don’t know about you, but people get locked into a certain age in my mind and no matter how many years pass, they’ll always be that age. My grandma was always 77, my mother will always be in her 30s, and my dad was always 44.

To think of septuagenarians and then try to fit my dad into that box feels incongruous.

Granted, I’m not sure how old he was when I last saw him.

When I was 15, my dad sustained a traumatic brain injury when a tree fell on him. It affected the frontal lobe, which deals with decision-making and impulse control.

He became a different person after that. He still looked the same, but was easily confused, and he was prone to violence. He had to be removed from the family, and was shuffled from one personal care home to the other.

Sometimes it’s easier to think of things in clinical terms, to remove the humanity and not have to think about the family that was shattered.

When he died in 2018, he was living a few blocks away from where my grandma – his mom – lived for all of my life. There’s a sad kind of symmetry to that.

I thought his death would have been easier with us being estranged. And for a week it was. I was high, playing a videogame with a friend when it hit me. Hard. I howled that night like I hadn’t in decades, like part of my soul was dying.

The worst part was that I was getting to the point in my own mental health maintenance where I was almost ready to reach out to him.

Even now, I’m not sure I’ve really processed all of it.

Ironically, we’ve been able to talk a lot more now that he’s gone.

I went to visit him this past Saturday at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies. The sun was out for what seemed like the first time in months, and even though the air was chilly, I felt warm. In a previous visit, I’d left my rose quartz on his headstone. I figured it would have rolled away, or been taken away by some groundskeeper, but that day I found it beside the white headstone, faded pink in the lush green grass.

It seemed auspicious enough, and I’ve been carrying it with me ever since. I wonder, though, if he would have thought putting so much meaning behind a stone was silly. Then again, he was a coal miner.

Faith was very important to my father, so much so that he would eschew anything that wasn’t godly. I remember him saying I could “make a preacher cuss.” He didn’t want me listening to “Weird Al” parodies too loud because he didn’t want people thinking I was listening to the real versions. He thought The Nightmare Before Christmas was “sinister,” an opinion he formed before watching a single frame of the film.

Needless to say, we didn’t have much in common.

I often wonder what he’d think of this spiritual awakening journey I’m on, if he would’ve been able to understand something that can’t be understood, something that predates understanding. God, the Universe – Whatever – it’s all the different names for the same Thing.

As I write this, I’m sitting on my friends’ back patio. Spring is reemerging from beneath the brown dirt, squirrels scurry from tree to tree, birds serenade the coming night, a man chants at the mosque somewhere up Wylie.

And I just wonder if he would have been able to understand that God is in all of that. I guess in a way it doesn’t matter, because he’s also part of it now, and I guess – in that way – we’re together.

Despite having little in common, I never doubted for a moment that he loved me.

For a long time I felt a lot of regret for not reaching out, for abandoning him. But then I realized that I was the only one feeling that – I was the only one causing that regret to be felt. My father wasn’t around to impose that feeling on me, and I knew that wherever he was was not a place where he could possibly feel anything like regret or abandonment.

I wanted this post to be so many things: an accurate recounting of the accident from my admittedly limited POV, a eulogy, a reason to update this thing again. I feel like I’ve only (barely) succeeded at the last one.

Thinking about my dad, writing about him, eulogizing him – however inelegantly – I can’t help but feel love, because I know that’s our natural state, and that’s what he’s returned to.

He is in every joy I feel, every spark of happiness – from each sunny day to a each perfect cuppa, in every day you can drive with the windows down to every pair of sloped shoulders in sundresses.

I don’t know if this is coherent, if it had a purpose beyond me wanting to share more personal stuff. But maybe purpose is simply choosing in each moment that which brings the most love into the world.

All I know is that at one point, my father and mother chose to bring love into the world.

Happy birthday, dad.

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