The Last Birthday Gift

blown out candles on a birthday cakeThis 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.

14 thoughts on “The Last Birthday Gift

  1. I had 7 friends at the humble party of my 15th birthday, 4 at 16th, 2 at 17th, 0 at 18th, 0 at 19th, 0 at 20th. In fact for the past 3 years I have just taken a glass of whiskey with ice and watched out the window of the sad, empty September.

    I have never had a father, he left me when I was 3 months old so I really don’t know what it feels like to miss a father. My mother left me when I was 11 and that hurts, a lot, at times. Nobody has ever really died in my family, if I have such a thing.

    I’m actually, sincerely, happy for you for cherishing each birthday you have remaining. For me however, live or die, it doesn’t really matter. But you, you, well .. good for you.

    • I’m sincerely sorry that you have had a tough experience in life so far. But your comment misses my point, and the point of life generally. Of course the time you have left matters, or will, once you resolve to make the most of your time here.

      My father, as you would discover if you search for my other post about him from 2010, had an early life not much more promising or happy than yours has been. He went on from a childhood in poverty, and a father who abandoned him and his mother, to heroism in World War 2, an education at Harvard and in law, a varied and challenging career in several fields, and a remarkable record as a father, husband and friend. He did this while limping on a foot blown to bits by an idiot who tried to fix his boot with a hand grenade, in constant pain from his 20’s until he died.

      If your life doesn’t matter, that’s your choice. And it’s a wasteful and foolish one. Make it matter, damn you.

      • It’s not the lives that we live that matters, it’s what we accomplish while living them. Your father, obviously, accomplished more than most have or ever will. My father accomplished a damn good disappearance act which even most good magicians can’t pull off. What I have accomplished is yet to be written.

        Time is such a funny thing, it ticks slow when you want it to tick fast and the opposite. Time .. everybody has an expiration date, but nobody knows when and pain, pain forms us into more mature, more deep beings, in my opinion. Whilst being negative in it’s nature, it’s a part of all of us all whether with huge or small impact.

        Perhaps my views of the world are completely biased, and why wouldn’t they be, I’m young. But having had someone special is better than the opposite, so kudos to you. And perhaps kudos to my future self as well.

        • There you go, Cal. I’m rooting for you, and so would my Dad. it is really true that without someone special to emulate or follow in his young life, he resolved to BE that person, for himself and others. Then it all comes down to luck, opportunity, and not giving up, especially the latter.

  2. I don’t think you’re supposed to cry when celebrating a birthday, but I cried for you on this one. I never appreciated my dad until after he died and as I’ve matured I realize his really good qualities were passed down to me in the most unusual ways. My love of baseball is the one I cherish most, but of course there are others. Your advice to Cal is important and I hope he recognizes it. And I hope you do have a happy birthday Jack. Don’t you think your dad would have liked that?

  3. My husband’s grandmother, who practically raised him, died the day after his birthday when he was 24. She had cancer, and was in the end stages, but she called him and encouraged him to come home for his birthday, then went out and got her hair done and put on a nice kimono and waited for him. He got stuck at work and didn’t get back until the next morning. She wished him a happy birthday and passed away right there. For years his birthday made him sad. As the years went by, he felt that perhaps feeling good on his birthday wasn’t a bad thing, thinking back on her enormous happiness on the day of his birth, and thereafter. She lost her son and three daughters during the war and his birth gave her new life.

    It’s very hard to lose one’s Dad. I lost mine 6 years ago and still miss him. As time goes by though, the sadness is slowly replaced by the resurfacing of memories of the good times, and you can laugh as you remember them ,and gradually the sadness fades a bit. Perhaps, as time goes by, thinking of your birthday as one of the happiest days of your father’s life will help.

  4. My belated condolences. I wish I could do more.

    I found him dead, as if asleep, in his favorite chair

    As I found my mother, last Wednesday. She hadn’t answered the daily “are you OK mum?” phonecall, so I rushed over straight away. We’re still awaiting the results of the coronial inquest into a sudden death. Then there’s a probate application to make to the High Court. It gives me something to do so I don’t just sit here crying.

    Your father’s greatest achievement is his son. Others can see that, though I doubt you can. I hope my own boy turns out to be as ethical as you are.

    I also hope that one day, amidst the loss, you will be able to celebrate your own birthday again. Birthdays affirm life – the life your Father lived, and the life he gave to you.

    Hugs from Australia, Zoe

  5. Could has been my dad, his words…he was cut from the same cloth. It has been 3 years, the day after Christmas. Miss him everyday and feel his influence in my life … everyday.

  6. Very much sorry for you Jack. Having witnessed many of my friends lose their fathers, and being very close to mine, I understand the irreplaceable bond that exists between fathers and sons who benefit from healthy relationships. I am saddened by the stifled grief of sons who lose fathers regretting never having healthy relationships.

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