This is my birthday. It’s also the third anniversary of my father’s death, as the two dates collided for all time when I found him dead, as if asleep, in his favorite chair when I went to my parents condo to meet him for a late birthday dinner, December 1, 2009.
I feel no more in the mood to celebrate my birth this day than I did that one, and seriously doubt if I ever will again. I miss my father terribly, every day really, and yet I recall that moment when I realized he was gone with mixed emotions. I knew that the old soldier, 89, fighting cancer, a heart condition and old war wounds, was facing a sharp down-turn in his quality of life; I knew that this was the way he always said he wanted to go out—quickly, without drama, humiliation or excessive expense—and I knew that among the members of his immediate family, I was the one whom he would have wanted to find his abandoned body. I never felt closer to my father, who, like so many of his gender and generation, had trouble expressing affection and intimacy directly, than I did in those last moments before the EMT’s arrived, as I stroked his thin, gray hair and said good-bye.
I have also come to believe that he gave me a great gift three years ago, probably unconsciously, but with my father, you never know. He detested and rejected all forms of score-keeping, including regrets, accolades, praise and bucket lists. He was proud of many things in his life, especially his military service and his family, but he never felt superior to another human being based on what had happened in the past. My father believed that what mattered in life was going forward—doing one’s duty, helping others, setting a good example, and making every minute of your life count by trying to leave the world, even if it is only your small corner of it, better than it was before you got there. And when you’re done, you’re done. There is nothing to be sad about, or to be afraid of, or to regret; no recriminations for what didn’t happen, what couldn’t be completed, or mistakes made along the way. Just do your best, as you have learned to do it, for as long as you can. It’s not a competition, and you shouldn’t judge yourself by anyone’s standard but your own.
My father’s death reminded me that there is nothing special about being born. Everybody is born. It is how we use whatever time we have, when we use it well, that is truly worth celebrating, and even then, past achievements never justify resting on our laurels as long as we are still capable of doing some good, and have time left to do it.
On the day he died, my father spent loving hours with my mother in her hospital room, gave some needed advice and encouragement to my sister, wished his son a happy birthday, and made him laugh one last time. Good work, right to the end. If the timing of his finale changed for all time the meaning of my birthday for me, it also made vivid the life lessons that were the essence of Jack A. Marshall, Sr. Care about others. Be responsible. Be fair. Do the best you can for as long as you can. Keep trying to be better. Never give up. Don’t be afraid. If you do all of that, you don’t need celebrations to prove your life has meaning. It just does.
It is true that “Happy Birthday” will never sound right to me again. Still, my father’s life and his way of leaving it gave me ideals good and true to celebrate on every December 1, the wisdom to cherish whatever birthdays I have remaining, and the sense to never waste precious time regretting what is past and beyond changing. In many ways, his last birthday gift to me was the best one of all.