Today is my father's birthday
It is amazing how much can change in a year... how outwardly everything can seem exactly the same, but in reality nothing will ever be the same again. Most days slip by unnoticed, flowing from one into another quite seamlessly and we scarcely remember them after they have passed. Not so with birthdays. Birthdays are special: they are a time to celebrate, but also to look back. We take stock of the past year, or many years, and remember to actually live in the moment and celebrate the day. These days can be joyous; occasionally treacherous. You can't control a birthday; they come on a set schedule -- ready or not, birthday coming through. I opened my eyes this morning to the realization that today is my father's birthday. And of course, all of the memories - years of memories - started flooding back.
The cross-country trips in our car from Arizona to Indiana, with my protector and traveling companion Hailey (our shepherd mix) riding shotgun as we watched the scenery change from desert to grain and eventually to forest. She loved to stop for fast food. The Dairy Queen in Illinois always gave her dog biscuits on her ice cream cup. I couldn't have asked for a better traveling pal; every trip was an adventure, and she drank it all in with an easy-going congeniality and grace. The peak weekend for the changing leaves arrives, like clockwork, on my father's birthday.
Autumn leaves will always remind me of my dad, his birthday, and traveling home; although we moved back home to Indiana years ago. This past summer my father finally lost his 25-year fight with Parkinson's Disease, succumbing at last to pneumonia. The day after his funeral we learned that Hailey had cancer. Three weeks ago she also died; here at home, in her bed. Both are strangely absent today. The leaves are turning color right on schedule, and October 17th has arrived. No surprise in that.
Yesterday I was 'doing OK.' Today the wounds are open, raw and dangerous. And so it goes. One of my favorite memories of my dad is from 10 or 11 years ago, when we had brunch near Lake Monroe (outside Bloomington, Indiana,) and then went walking in the forest. My dad - as always - was exploring some intellectual tangent that intrigued him.
On that particular day he was trying to calculate the number of leaves in the forest by estimating the number of leaves on one tree, then estimating the number of trees in our line of sight, and then guestimating the total number of trees in the forest. There was no point in mentioning to him that every tree was different - some were short, with fewer leaves. The mental game was on. Of course, I jumped right in... this is how I was raised.
When I learned that my dad has been hospitalized with pneumonia, I recall looking out at the trees around our house, and absently I started counting the leaves on the nearest oak. Perhaps this was an attempt to keep my dad's unique perspective alive when it appeared that nothing could prolong the life in his frail, tired body. As I moved outward from the oak, and started on the 'total leaves in the front yard,' I again noted that the saplings threw the entire leaf count off... but somehow that no longer mattered.
My dad lived in the land of questions. Answers were never as important as asking questions and exploring the boundaries of everything - including logic. When I was little, we used to wonder aloud whether different stars and different solar systems emitted different kinds of light; and if so, whether there were different colors there. We realized that our eyes probably wouldn't be able to see these other colors, but we tried to imagine what a different color might look like. I kept coming up with purple.
My dad is gone today, and so is my dog. I am sitting here alone, remembering other October days - Hailey running through the swirling leaves, looking back over her shoulder with those bright, intelligent eyes and tossing her head (her version of a laugh.) I am remembering many birthday dinners at my father's house, and the sometimes fantastical and occasionally ridiculous conversations we had over a bottle of wine. I am not even remotely 'recovered' from this double loss. I still take each day as it comes, focusing on the little things that have to be done.
Time is moving forward; the seasons are changing right on schedule, the rains come and go, and the first of many family 'holidays' is here. The election that my dad speculated (endlessly) about is nearly here. It is hard to imagine that a simple thing like mortality could have kept him from the polls. But life moves on; and I'm certainly not the only person going through some version of this pain today. I remember you dad. Happy birthday. Please give Hailey a hug; I still can't quite believe she's not here, curled up by my feet as I type.