My dad would’ve turned 90 today. It’s the first birthday he’s not around to celebrate, and in the weeks leading up to this, I’ve repeatedly reminded myself to do the yearly ritual of buying his birthday and Father’s Day cards—before remembering that that’s not something I’ll do anymore.
In his eulogy, I talked about how the last time I saw him, I peppered him with terrible jokes just to get him laughing and about how if I had to live with a final moment, I can make peace with it being that one. It may not have been a real goodbye. But I’m not sure getting one of those in is anything but a matter of luck, ultimately.
The goodbye that comes back to me a lot these days happened nearly 20 years ago, in 1998. My wife, Renée, and I had eloped in April, and my parents wanted to have the chance to throw us something official. So later that year, we had a formal-esque brunch in suburban Philadelphia, near where I grew up.
It was a nice affair, with friends and relatives coming from quite a ways away to show up, and it ended the way many such things wrap up for guests of honor. It seems that people are suddenly heading off in all directions. And you thank as many of them as you can, but this thing that’s been anticipated for months is dissolving so fast as everyone goes back to their lives.
Back then, Dad had stumbled into a revived career of sorts with a company that had a Navy contract and was pulling engineers out of retirement because only the old guys had the necessary experience. And as our brunch was winding down, he was leaving in a rental car to catch a flight to where he needed to be.
Only I didn’t realize he was planning to do that. Either I’d been told and it hadn’t registered, or it just hadn’t come up. I thought he’d be sticking around, so I was surprised and a little weirded out to see him head down the restaurant driveway, clearly leaving for real.
“Wait—where’s Dad going?”
Somebody gave me an answer. Dad leaned over, smiled at us, and gave a quick wave as he passed. And then he was gone. Just like that. Just a pair of brake lights before a turn into traffic. I couldn’t help but feel like something was getting away from me, even though I didn’t know what it was. And for years afterward, every time I gave him a hug goodbye, I couldn’t shake that feeling—because at some point, it would be true.
The last time I saw him, I knew there was the very real possibility that there’d be no more partings. Yet I was surprised when that’s how it turned out to be. I guess part of me never really believed that would happen. I guess part of me still doesn’t.
Wait. Where’s Dad going?
Renée lost both her parents when she was young, and she’s often said over the years that you can’t know what it’s like until it’s happened. She was right.
All of this is probably coming off sadder than I want it to be when I thought it’d just be bittersweet. But take care with your goodbyes and your good wishes. Make them count if you can. They’re precious things.
Hello to you wherever you’ve landed, Dad. Here’s a good wish for the fifth of June. Happy Birthday, and be sure to hit ‘em with a few really awful puns for those of us back here.