The Best Birthday


My Daddy grew out of the earth.  He was stocky with short legs and a long torso.  Mommy complained that all of his pants had to be hemmed.  But, his strong legs held him steady when he walked behind a mule steering a plough.  Not to be outdone, his arms were also muscular.  He could lift bales of hay with little effort when he was well into his fifties.

Daddy had a good mind.  He could look at the roof of a house and know almost exactly how many shingles it would take to cover it.  He could look at a tree and know how many boards it would yield.  I can’t be sure that his intelligence was always an asset.  I have to wonder if being smart didn’t carry with it the burden of fully comprehending the disparities inherent in his life:  there are many hardships that come with earning a living by crawling on your knees to finish concrete or working at a sawmill.

He kept a half-pint of whiskey in the glovebox of his truck.  Many days he only took a few sips to soften thoughts of long days and little pay.  But, some days a few sips couldn’t ease the indignity.  Even when the bottle was empty, he felt put upon, shamed, angry.

And, sometimes the anger spilled out of him as destructive energy.  There was a bullet lodged in our kitchen floor.  A dent in a floor fan from a steel toe boot.  And other less obvious marks.

I didn’t have any contact with him for eleven years; he didn’t know I went to law school or had a daughter.  When I found out he had been diagnosed with cirrhosis and was ill, I began to rethink whether he could have a place in my life.  By that time, I had gained enough wisdom to understand that no person is one-dimensional.  No circumstances are entirely black or white.

I don’t think he intended to be one of the reasons that our home was unsafe.  But, sometimes boats wander off-course, drawn by a siren call that is too strong, too strong to be overcome by even the most powerful arms and most persistent oars.  Although only short solace results from the detour, just flimsy promises to replace things lost or never held at all, by then it is too late.  The boat is adrift.

On September 18, 2012, I learned his health had taken a turn for the worse.  I tried to figure out if I should fly to Kentucky immediately or if I could wait a few days.  It was almost my birthday and I had promised my daughter I would spend it with her in California.

Initially, it looked like he was stable.  But, I received a panicked phone call from my brother late in the afternoon on September 19.

“Kim, you have to come now.  He almost died when they transported him from the hospital back to the nursing home.”

“Tell him I am coming.  Tell him I will be there.”

On the redeye to Chicago, connecting to Lexington, I sat perfectly still and willed him to live.  It was early morning when I landed and the temperature in the airport was freezing; I was shaking from cold and worry.  At first, I couldn’t reach my family to find out if he was still alive.  Anyone who saw me in O’Hare that morning must have wondered about the woman sitting alone and crying as if her heart was broken.  Finally, I found out that he had lived through the night.  I texted a friend, “I think he is waiting for me.”

When I arrived at the hospital,  my brother met me in the lobby and tried to manage my expectations regarding  how Daddy was doing.  He told me he wasn’t very aware of what was going on.  He told me that Daddy probably wouldn’t know me.

But, when I walked in his hospital room, Daddy looked right at me and said, “I believe I’m going to talk to Kimmy for a while.”  We were able to talk to him for the rest of the day.  He ate strawberries and M&Ms.  He smiled.  He said he had always loved us “young’uns.”

When I got to his room the next morning, Daddy was unresponsive and remained that way until he died six days later.

The last day we were able to talk with him, Thursday, September 20, 2012, was a special day, and my 43rd birthday.  If I live to be ninety, I doubt that any birthday will top that one.

At one point, I was crying as I sat beside him on his bed.  He looked at me and said, “Don’t cry, baby.  Daddy will be OK.”

And, I believe that finally he is OK.  I believe that he isn’t fighting his demons anymore.  I believe that the physical and spiritual pain that he endured has ended.  He is young and strong and unburdened.  And he is sorry.

  2 comments for “The Best Birthday

  1. Cathy Brenman
    April 28, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    They. just. keep. getting. better. and. better. Thank you, Kim, absolutely loving and hanging on every word. xoxoxo

    • April 28, 2014 at 6:50 pm

      As always, thank you for your kind words and encouragement, Cathy!

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