It was our last hurrah, only I didn’t know it then.
For my twenty-first birthday, after I had the traditional night of going out and partying with my college friends, my father planned an amazing family celebration. He got tickets to a play I really wanted to see, he invited my mom (they divorced years ago, but always stayed good friends), he made reservations at a great restaurant, he had the fancy car pick me up, he had the presents all ready in the gift bag, and he had the custom-made cake from the best New York City bakery. He had planned the night down to the last detail.
It was a magical night. We saw the play, we ate decadent food, we laughed, we drank some champagne (I was legal now!), and we celebrated. After the play, my step-mother took us to a great Soho lounge — the kind of place you only knew about if you lived in the city. I can actually still remember the delicious champagne I had at that swanky lounge with the frosted glass doors. It was a perfect night.
It was also the last birthday my father and I would ever celebrate together. My father died the following summer.
My father’s cancer returned suddenly a few months after that birthday celebration. He had been battling this for almost two years, and even though it was in remission on my birthday, my family and I saw personally how cancer can be an erratic, evil force and how, as soon as you settle back into your life, it has a way of coming back to terrorize you. He fought a strong, courageous battle and insisted on still getting out and living his life (“those that ain’t living are dying” was one of his favorite lines from Bob Dylan), but there were some things, some nights, we could never recreate. That birthday night was our last limo ride, our last Broadway show, and our last glass of champagne together.
Memories of my father flash through my mind all the time — all the magical things we did together in the city — but it is that night that I regularly come back to.
When I look back on that birthday, I realize now that my father must have known it was possible that this was the last big birthday celebration he would ever have with me. Was it painful for him to plan a special night out with all of us, knowing it may be his last? Did he think with each detail he planned that he may not get to do this again? However hard it may have been, he did it for me. He gave me these special memories to always hold in my heart, even if doing so forced him to think of his own mortality and broke his heart just a little more.
My father shared with me once during his cancer battle that he was definitely not ready to die, but he was also not afraid of what may happen. He was only afraid of not being here to be with, and take care of, my brother and me.
Losing a parent changes you forever. It is such a painful and profound loss, a loss that affects all aspects of your life, especially how you parent. His death broke my heart, but it also made me a stronger mother. When you lose a parent, you are acutely aware, often at a young age, of the fragility of life, and that awareness can be terrifying at times. But it can also empower you as a parent.
I may sometimes have these acute fears of “what if something happened to me and I was not here for my children?” — moments where I think of how I lost out on so many years with my own father and how debilitating it is to even think of not being here for all of my children’s moments. Of course, I know, to some degree, all parents have these same fears, but when it has actually happened with one of your own parents, the reality that it is not just a “paranoid fear” but one that can really, actually happen is very powerful.
While I cannot always change those thoughts, they are with me forever, but so is the deep appreciation for life. This acute gratitude for the moments that I do have with my family. Not because every moment is easy and perfect, but because after going through this painful loss, I see it more clearly, even when it’s messy, loud, and nerve-racking. Sometimes a great loss gives us more resolution to practice the things we all already know (life can be so fragile, take time to appreciate it more), but in the hectic day-to-day, these reminders can get overshadowed by all of the daily rushing around.
My father’s death brought me face to face with that much-needed resolution: that no matter how busy and hectic life is, I will take the time to step back and be present in the moment.
I will make time each week for the family pancake breakfasts on Sundays, for reading to the kids each night, for making muffins together, for watching movies at 2 pm on cold Saturday afternoons, for the silly dance parties that get the kids way too wound up before bedtime, for the routines and rituals that we create as a family and that really do have such a deep meaning. Not just because we deeply love our children, but also because I know, on such a personal level, how much we all (children and adults) hold onto these memories in our lives, especially when someone is gone.
It is knowing that these years when our children are still living at home with us do not last forever. These days cannot be recreated, so we must create new beautiful moments, especially in the perfectly imperfect child-rearing years. And I will be sure to enjoy that last glass of wine with my husband once the kids are in bed. No cleaning, no laundry, no doing work, just sitting for that moment together.
Perhaps the most important realization about loved ones that comes from a painful loss is that there really is no such thing as goodbye. Even when they are not with you, they are. Even though my dad has been gone for many years, his presence is still with us. Of course, it is not the same as him being here in person, nothing ever will be. But it is still quite powerful.
l continue to keep his memory alive by keeping his pictures on the wall and talking to my children about Grandpa. I remember when my son was four years old and he said to me, “I want to see Grandpa Murray. Can he come down from Heaven to play with me?” As much as I would tear up when I would hear these words, I would also take great comfort in knowing that my father’s memory endures, and as hard as it is to have him gone, it is beautiful to know that no matter how long it has been since he passed away, he is never really gone.
Inevitably, each year when my birthday comes around and I think of what I want to do, what my previous birthdays have been like, it is certain that my twenty-first birthday will come to my mind. It is the moment where we all sat and laughed and celebrated that I will think of. The moment that I will wish more than anything that we could recreate, even for just a few seconds.
Even for just one more glass of champagne in the lounge with the frosted glass doors.