( 5 Votes )

Christina and her fatherOne Christmas morning when he was a kid, my dad ripped into a camera box given to him by his beloved aunt and uncle. His glee faded, however, when he discovered that the box was packed with socks.

“Merry Christmas, Tony,” they told him. “Oh, and happy birthday, too.” My dad’s birthday was New Year’s Eve, so he always got his gifts lumped together. Not like the lucky kids who were fortunate enough to have birthdays in months other than December.

So my brother John, my mom and I delighted in making his New Year’s Eve birthday special for him. We kept the tree up, and a couple days after Christmas more presents would mysteriously appear. John and I racked our brains to figure out how to disguise the telltale shapes of our gifts – blank videocassettes, batteries and highlighters – meager presents he specifically requested because he knew we could afford them on our piddling high school job salaries.

We’d make him cards, too, and he’d pick them up and flap them around, just in case a check dropped out. He never got a check from me, but he did get a bunch of homemade coupon books for things like back scratches and dinners together.For some reason he loved those even more than the highlighters.

As part of his birthday tradition, we’d gorge ourselves on my mom’s lasagna topped with homemade sausage and meatballs, then head off to someone’s house for a New Year’s Eve party.

I loved those New Year’s Eves with him. He’d laugh with his friends, telling goofy jokes and talking about ideas. One time he convinced the entire room to drop what they were doing and drive back to our house to watch an action flick, because, if you listened to him, it was incredible on a laser disc with surround sound. Yep, laser disc. John and I were – heck, we still are – the only people in the state of Virginia who even knew what those were. As much as he loved to laugh, one joke always pricked him just a little. New Year’s Eve is really the only time when people deliberately stay up until midnight together. And inevitably in the wee moments of the new year, someone’s eyes would light up and they’d say to him, imagining they were the first to think of it, “Hey, it’s not your birthday anymore.” My dad would look a little crestfallen.

He was a big kid at heart. As hungry college kids, all we had to do was whisper in his ear and he’d take us all out for as much pizza as we could stomach. A satellite engineer who traveled all over South America and East Africa and brought us to live in Kenya, he loved the beauty of satellite dishes and once took us out to West Virginia to visit the Green Bank telescope – but left the gift shop with a t-shirt so tacky it made us cringe.

When he got sick he really did become a big kid. For some reason the tumor in his brain had that effect. Each week I’d take him to breakfast at Dee Dee’s, his favorite diner, and he’d pile so much whipped cream on his waffle he’d need to ask for more. But when he died the wait staff came to his funeral.

When I was little my dad would find me the best hiding spots for hide and seek. Much like deer, humans never really look up. So he’d stick me up on a shelf in the pantry or the linen closet. My mom would check those rooms over and over and never see me, though my stifled giggles almost gave me away.

One summer we drove to his hometown, just the two of us. On the way up we listened to my favorite songs, and he asked me why I liked each one. Then we popped in a Beatles CD, and he told me about all the musical innovations they had pioneered.

My dad played piano and guitar. He taught himself to play by ear. My mom played too, and gave me piano lessons. When we all played together John would be on drums and I’d play saxophone or sing with my mom. My piano playing was pretty weak till my dad died. Then I decided for his funeral I’d play his favorite church song on the piano with the rest of his old music team. After that I was hooked and taught myself to play like him. I went on to lead music at two different churches for eight years. The best moments were the rare occasions I could get John on drums with me. I kept wishing my dad could join in.

Sometimes I visit where we scattered his ashes, in the woods behind the church he loved. I stand in the clearing and listen to the nearby stream, but he isn’t there. I can tell. So I turn around and walk back.

As New Year’s Eve approaches I find myself thinking of him, wishing he were still around so I could spend the day with him. He was a people watcher, just like me, so we’d puzzle over things we’d observed, figuring out what makes people tick. I miss him throughout the day, and when the clock strikes midnight and the new year begins, I think to myself, it’s not your birthday anymore. To me, New Year’s Eve will always be his birthday. He filled the day, infusing it with himself. Thirteen years later I can still feel it. He’s a tough act to follow.