Just a few days ago, I happened to be with a friend when her father called to wish her happy birthday. The exchange only lasted a mere fifteen seconds, but I felt a melancholy shift inside. It reminded me of all the years I was lucky enough to receive birthday calls from my father.
My father will not be calling me this year. He hasn’t done so for the last decade.
I turn 40 this year, and this birthday feels different from all the others — sadder, more somber and heartbreaking. In my mind, 40 means serious adulting: settling down, being grounded and level-headed. Gone are the days when the kids were babies and the biggest dilemma was choosing between music or art class. Their needs now are so much greater, more demanding. Habits that were cute a few years ago translate into behavior challenges at school.
Parenting feels like the big league now, and the more complicated life becomes, the more I miss my father, the more pronounced his absence is.
More than ever, I feel an urgent need to hear my father’s voice — to remember it, only to panic at the thought that he may no longer remember mine. I desperately want to fill him in on the last eleven and a half years. Does he know that I’m a mother now? Can he tell from the sound of my voice — is my exhaustion and my anxiety obvious? Will he ask me if I’m doing okay? Will he know the names of my sons? They are both named after him so he must know, right? Is he watching over us?
It has been the first complete decade without my father — we were alive together for most of my 20s, but none of my 30s. And I have been feeling off the last few weeks, very similar to what I typically experience in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of his death or his birthday. I wake up each morning with a lump in my throat and that uncomfortable feeling remains with me throughout the day.
A coworker asks if I’m okay. She notes that I look sad. I provide the usual response of how the complicated juggle of kids, work and chores takes its toll sometimes. But what I really want to admit is that I miss my dad. I still need him, even as I wish that my reliance on him isn’t necessary, and that time is working its magic and easing the burden of grief. This is the first complete decade without his parenting to anchor me. Even at 40, I still covet his remarkable presence in my life.
I now have two children of my own, 5 and 9. It still hurts that my dad and I cannot parent together — that he didn’t have the privilege of watching me become a mother and, more distressingly, that he doesn’t have the much-deserved honor of being a grandfather. I look back at the last decade and remember the excitement of turning 30 and announcing my pregnancy at my birthday party. At the time, the joy and trepidation of becoming a parent distracted me from his absence.
But the truth is, more than ten years later, I still long for my father’s parenting. I seek his advice on financial decisions, IKEA furniture and movie selections. I yearn for our lengthy and animated discussions on books and pop culture. I reflect on life’s happenings — the choices that I have made, from carving a career in medical development and fundraising, to building a community for my family in Harlem, to embracing my boys’ academic strengths in choosing the right school for them.
It dawns on me that every choice I have made is guided by his love and influence. My father is here and has always been. He’s managed to parent despite the distance between us. He has found a way to serve as a navigator of my life from his corner of the universe, wherever that may be. And I realize that he stills feels exceptionally close by. This birthday is no different.