On Sunday May 21, 2017, my Dad would have celebrated his 54th birthday.
It tears me up inside to have to say “would have”.
My Dad never made a big deal out of his birthday. He was always happy if Mom made one of his favorite home cooked meals and a tasty dessert. We would all get him a few gifts, and we would usually spend the night at home together. We would usually get one of his favorites—a Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream cake—and he would eat one big piece. And then another. And then usually another before bed. My Dad enjoyed the simple moments in his life, and a birthday didn’t need to have a bunch of extravagance to enjoy the day any more. A good meal, good family, and good cake and ice cream. I love that my Dad loved life’s simplicity. I strive to be more like him in this way.
Now that those moments are gone forever, I would give anything to go back to those days and make a ridiculously big deal out of his birthday. I would give anything to have another birthday to celebrate with him. I don’t know if it’s even what he would have wanted, because he really enjoyed life at a low-key pace and volume. Extravagant to Dad would have been two Graeter’s cakes instead of one. No matter what we did, I would have wished we had a huge blowout on his birthday. Looking back, that’s probably more about me than it is about him, and I’m ashamed to say that, but it’s all about the love I feel for him.
I’m sure this is a common sentiment to anyone who has lost a loved one, and it probably isn’t relegated to just birthdays. Christmas feels emptier. Thanksgiving feels emptier. Mother’s or Father’s days feel emptier. Yes, every day will feel a certain level of emptiness, but that emptiness is really magnified on those “big days”.
Losing a loved one to suicide (or losing a loved one prematurely) also brings on a new layer of feeling: the feeling of being robbed. The feeling of having one of life’s greatest treasures stolen prematurely.
My Dad deserved more birthdays. He deserved birthdays into his eighties and nineties and triple-digits. He deserved to celebrate his birthdays not just with me and Mom, but with his grandkids and maybe even great grandkids. He deserved more.
I experience a whole host of emotions on my Dad’s birthday, and it’s hard to predict what I might feel in any given moment throughout the day.
I feel sadness. Sadness that I can no longer say “Happy Birthday” to my Dad face to face. Or give him a gift or buy him a card. Sadness that I’ll never get to see the smile on his face or hear his familiar chuckle when he opens up a birthday card that I bought to poke fun at his age. Sadness that I’ll never be able to eat another birthday meal with him. Sadness that I’ll never be able to rub his bald head and make a joke about him having nothing else to lose since his hair was already gone years before. There’s so much sadness now on a day that was once all about being happy. It’s difficult to fathom.
I also feel distance. As each year passes by, I feel more and more distance from my Dad—and it scares me. Instead of celebrating his 52nd or 53rd or 54th birthday, I find myself celebrating the second, or third, or fourth birthday since he’s gone. I find myself dividing my life into Before Dad and After Dad, and there’s a pain that invades my heart as I accumulate more birthdays and big days without him. I feel like the further away I get from the last conversation he and I shared, the more of him I’m losing. I feel like the more years that rack up since he’s been gone, the more I will forget. I don’t want my Dad to become a memory, but I’m worried that all I have left of him are memories which I’m bound to someday forget. The distance between then and now scares me tremendously.
I feel guilt. Tremendous guilt. Guilt for all of his birthdays that I took for granted. Guilt for all the birthdays of his that I likely treated as just another day. Guilt for all the birthdays where I scrambled at the last minute for a gift when I should have spent more time being thoughtful and considerate. Guilt for all the birthdays where I had something on my calendar other than spending time with the man who deserved it. I know, I know. It’s easy to be a Monday Morning Quarterback. It’s easy to have these feelings in retrospect, and I’d likely have them regardless of how I acted while he was here. I would always want more. But that doesn’t negate those feelings. That will never erase them. They are there, and they likely always will be.
I feel, oddly enough, like the victim of a robbery. Because my Dad died when he was only 50, I feel like something irreplaceable has been stolen from me. I never, ever, imagined that my Dad would be so overcome by his depression that it would threaten the existence of his life. I never thought that my family would join the unfortunate group of millions of Americans who are affected and impacted by suicide. My Dad’s life and my family’s life were not on course for this. This was not meant for us. But it happened anyway. And now, I’m left dealing with the repercussions of not having him here. I’m not trying to make this about me. It’s about my Dad’s life being stolen by a terrible disease—not mine. And that’s what I feel was stolen.
And yes, I feel anger. Immense anger. Not at my Dad—never at my Dad. I feel anger at the pressures that caused him to think life wasn’t worth living. I’m angry at depression, a disease that stole my Dad. I’m angry at all the things that shortened my Dad’s life unnecessarily. I’ve never felt anger at my Dad—something that not every survivor of suicide can say honestly. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be angry at the victim in their situation—I’m just sharing that I’ve never felt that way. Every situation is just so unique and so different. I’m fortunate that I can say this honestly, but I do have anger. Anger at the things that caused my Dad’s life to end and mine to change so dramatically. But I’ll never, ever be mad at my Dad.
I’ll admit—I haven’t yet found a good way to deal with losing my Dad on his birthday. I’ve tried different things every single year. I’ve tried writing him a letter. I’ve thought about visiting his grave site. I’ve thought about trying to do something he would have enjoyed, like eating a great meal or spending time outdoors in the park. Or eating an entire Graeter’s ice cream cake by myself—I think he would have advocated for this option. I’ve tried to ignore the magnitude of the date entirely (unsuccessfully I might add).
It’s a day on the calendar that will always be there for me, regardless of whether my Dad is here to celebrate or not. And honestly, I don’t know that these emotions that I feel today will ever subside. I will always miss my Dad, and that date will always be there. As a result, I think I’ll always experience all of these emotions—some years more, and other years less. I’ll always long to spend just one more birthday with him—knowing darn well that at the end of that birthday I would have still been asking for more. I’ll always dream of how he would have looked on his 60th, 70th, 80th, and 90th birthday. I’ll always long for the moments that were stolen from our family—the moments he should have had but never will.
But, I guess, there’s an alternative that I don’t wish for either. I could have lived a life without a father like the one I had. I could have been free from the pain of losing him, but that would have meant I would have had to been free of the love and joy that it was to spend 26 years with him here in this world. It’s so hard and so difficult to say goodbye to those we love, but it’s only hard and difficult if those people made a tremendous impact on our lives before they left. And I would choose the pain any day over if it means I can have the joy and love.
And boy, did my Dad do that. Not just on birthdays, but each and every day. He made me feel loved. He told me he was proud of me. He spent time with me when his busy workload and schedule offered him thousands of other alternatives. He did everything a Father should do, each and every day.
I wish I could give him more birthdays. I wish I could go back and redo the birthdays I did give him. I wish I had the perspective then that I do now so I could show my Dad how much he meant to me while he was here to experience it.
But, as I have to remind myself, he is experiencing it—just from a distance. Although I don’t always live this way, I know that my Dad is watching over me in heaven. I know that he knows my heart and that he doesn’t want me to experience any of these feelings I’m feeling on his birthday. I know that he’s watching over me, saying gently, “Bub, we will have plenty more birthdays to celebrate in Eternity—and they’ll be even better than anything we’ve ever had before.”
I don’t know what I’ll do this year. I don’t know how I’ll remember my Dad, and I don’t know what feelings I will feel.
But I can guarantee this. Even if it’s clouded in sadness, I will feel love. And appreciation. Love and appreciation for a Father who deserves it. Love and appreciation for a Father who gave everything he had, each and every day, to make people feel valued. Love and appreciation for a Dad whose absence brings a pain I never thought I could feel.
And love and appreciation for a man who had great taste in ice cream cakes.
Dad, It still doesn’t seem right that this is the fourth birthday that’s passed since you left us. It doesn’t feel right that life is going on without you. There are times when my heart feels so much pain that I can’t imagine ever celebrating anything without you again. But, in a weird way, I’m thankful for this pain because it reminds me how special you made life feel while you were here. You brought a vivid color and energy to my life each and every day that I don’t know I’ll ever be able to experience until I see you again. But I will see you again. I’ll make up for all those birthdays that I wished I could do over. You and I will, one day, celebrate our new birthdays in heaven. And fortunately, we will never, ever, see those birthdays come to an end. Happy birthday, Bub. You live on in my heart each and every day. Until I can tell you this face to face once again, seeya Bub.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes has eternal life.” John 6:47 (NLT)