Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Happy Birthday Dad…

This is a hard time of year for me. I guess we all have these times of the year, where the past experiences of our lives fill up the time we spend living today… times in which what we live is dominated by our remembrances. The ten days around St. Patrick’s Day are that time of year for me.

I was born on March 17th. My father was born on March 18th. My grandfather was born on March 19th. For years, we held one big party (usually on my birthday, which is also St. Patrick’s Day) for the three of us. Cookies and Ice Cream for my grandfather Jess… German Chocolate cake for my father, Lynn… and a vanilla frosted cake in the shape of a shamrock for me. Sometimes my grandfather Jess (my mom’s dad) could be there, sometimes he would just call. But in some way, we celebrated those three Birthday’s together.

My mom’s birthday is just a few days later, on March 25th. Now, my nephew Loki is in that mix, with a birthday on the 15th of March. My sister’s birthdays are not far away, on February 28th and January 17th. You would think that this would make this time one of the happiest of the year for me.

In 1994, when I was working at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador… my father passed away of a massive heart attack just a few days before his 49th birthday. I quickly flew home, and spent the next few weeks in a kind of a blur… I really don’t remember much of them. I have been unable to be joyful for this season of birthdays ever since. A few years later, my grandfather passed away. A few years after that, my Papaw Jack, my dad’s dad, also passed away.

I have been unable to find joy in this season of birthdays since. In some ways, the years of wonderful birthdays shared with my father and grandfather makes this time of year harder now that they are no longer here. For me, these days have become a time in my year when I remember them, when I honor them, and when I visit those memories.

My father was my best friend. Not all young men can say that about their relationships with their fathers, but I can. When I was in the cub scouts, he was my pack leader. When I was in the boy scouts, he was our scoutmaster. When I made Eagle Scout, he pinned the medal on me. We went camping together, hiking together, and we explored the Appalachian Mountains together. We made pinewood derby cars together. When I was 17 years old, and it was sometimes hard to talk about our relationship, about mom and our family, or about the decisions I was making in life… he and I bought an old car to work on together… a 1975 Mustang II. We might not be able to talk about anything else, but we could talk about that car.

When I drove that car off a small cliff into two telephone poles (and walked away unhurt), he told me to make sure I got pictures of the car, because everyone “deserved a picture of their first kill.” I thought he was going to kill me over the car… he was just glad that I was alive.

He was proud I had gone in the Army, but wished I had gone to college. He thought he had served in the Army for twenty years so his children would not have to. But, he came to my Basic Training graduation, and took me out for a steak. When I was given orders to a Special Forces unit, he was proud of me, but wished I would do something safer. It was in that conversation, at 18 years old, that I realized my dad was not only my best friend, but I was his. He was both proud of me and afraid for me.

When, at 20 years old, I was leaving on what I thought was a somewhat dangerous mission to El Salvador, my dad drove me to the airport, 3 hours away. On that drive, I told him I loved him, and that I would miss him. He told me the same. We talked of family, we talked of some of the decisions I had made in my life that were good, and some that were not. He shared with me some stories of his young adult years I had not heard. He knew I was worried about this trip. He knew I was saying goodbye, just in case. How could he not… he had had the same conversation with his own dad, years before as he deployed on a dangerous mission to a foreign country.

A few months later, I called my parents on a Sunday afternoon. My father and I talked for a few minutes, about the upcoming birthdays that I would not be home for… the first time ever I would miss them. Before handing the phone to my mother, he said “I’m proud of you, son.” Those were the last words he said to me.

I was home for the birthdays that year… but they were now filled with sorrow and grief. I don’t remember much of them, only that on his birthday I placed a plaque with his name engraved on it at the playground he and I had built as my Eagle Scout project. From that time on, I have spent this time of year in sadness, and in memory for my father. And I am thankful for that.

These days always were about me and my father… and they still are. In some ways they have greater meaning for me now than they ever would have before. But instead of presents and cake, I dress in the kinds of clothes my father might have worn, and I find a steakhouse like the one we would go to for his Birthday dinner, the night after the party. I order a T Bone, baked potato, and a soda, what he would have had… and I remember my dad… my best friend.

Happy Birthday Dad…

Yours in Faith,


3 Thoughts on “Happy Birthday Dad…

  1. Wow– what a wonderful tribute to your father.
    I can relate to much of this, as my father also died young of a heart attack (in March, too) It is really really hard to miss someone so much.

    Thoughts and blessings to you,


  2. Ann McCallister on Thursday March 20, 2008 at 7:01 +0000 said:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful reflection. For me, it brings to mind the deep connection between birth and death, joy and grief, and that we can have experiences that show us how these seeming opposites continuously flow into one another like a mobius strip. It takes courage to fully grieve, no matter how long in linear time, but I think it’s the path to being able to fully access joy.

  3. David,
    I remember reading about transformation of grief and fear in Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing – and not understanding it until my own father died. The remembering you do every year at this time is exactly what is needed, I think.
    A bow of gratitude for your post…

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