My father would have turned 89 today but he died on October 9, 2016. So this will be his first birthday as a deceased dad.
I woke up this morning feeling melancholy. Although living another year was hardly cause for celebration when you have advanced dementia, my father seemed to enjoy his last birthday cake, a peck on the cheek from each of the aides in his memory care facility, and the sound of “Happy Birthday To You” sung by anyone who could remember the words. He warmed to attention and squirmed in his wheelchair like a puppy being petted.
I decided that in keeping with my family’s disdain for somber ritual, I would celebrate his birthday by imagining a day filled with the activities he would have most enjoyed before dementia ate his brain.
But even before that, a few facts: In 1963 my father, a Ph.D. microbiologist, developed pharmaceuticals for a prestigious laboratory in Philadelphia. The father of my childhood wrote this sentence in an article he had published in the Journal of Bacteriology that year: “Pseudomonas aeruginosa, when grown in an inorganic salts medium with butyrate as the sole carbon source, produced an enzyme which catalyzed the condensation of butyryl coenzyme A (CoA) and glyoxylate to form β-ethylmalic acid.”
I have vivid memories of my father building snow forts and playing wiffle ball with us in the backyard when my brothers and I were very young. But I have even clearer memories of not understanding much of what he said or did after that. And, although he worshiped my mother who died ten years before him, he made less and less effort to interact with us as we turned from toddlers into independent children, then adults.
Instead, my father developed passions for many things in life, some fleeting, some lasting for decades. Most of them, to no one’s surprise, could be pursued alone.
To honor his memory I will take a swim, moving like my father, slowly but gracefully through the water in perfect freestyle form, turning my cheek to inhale on every fourth stroke. I’ll go for a long walk, pet a neighbor’s dog, and talk to the flowers in my garden. I’ll watch a YouTube clip from an old Johnny Carson show, maybe one with comedian Don Rickles, whose caustic insults to the audience made my father laugh so hard that tears would roll down his cheeks and he would gasp for air.
I’ll turn my nose up at cooked carrots and Brussels sprouts. But I’ll eat an entire Hebrew National salami, methodically, slice after slice, if I can still find one at the grocery store. Then I’ll belch copiously, not feeling the least bit embarrassed. After all, I am the king of the castle.
A day wouldn’t be complete without listening to classical music on my elaborate stereo system, standing when roused to wave my left hand like a manic conductor leading an imaginary orchestra to fever pitch in my living room. Exhausted from the effort of trying to keep my musicians in sync, I’ll collapse in my favorite armchair, the pale blue one with crushed velvet upholstery, and fall into a deep nap, head tilted back, snoring arrhythmically to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
By then I’ll have worked up an appetite for my favorite snack, Planter’s dry roasted peanuts, and, although I’ll suffer terrible stomach cramps later, I’ll polish off the entire jar. Just to be sure I’m truly miserable on my birthday, I’ll eat nearly a quart of Breyer’s butter pecan ice cream and a couple of sourdough pretzels out of the giant can I keep next to my recliner in the family room.
I’ll watch the national news, then a few hours of innocuous shows, or maybe an old movie with Sophia Loren whose beauty and strength used to render me speechless. I’ll finish off the evening with the eleven o’clock news on NBC, feeling a kinship with the anchors, sportscaster and weatherman who have been my steadfast companions for so many years. I’ll have another pretzel or two before I go upstairs to bed and change into my soft cotton pajamas, the kind Ricky Ricardo used to wear.
A few hours later I’ll find myself wide awake. Worries will dance through my brain. Will my money last as long as it has to? Will my daughter ever find the right man? Will my sons achieve financial security? How will I live without my wife? Do I have anything in the ‘fridge for breakfast?
I’ll get out of bed and return to the living room. I’ll read a nonfiction book that I’ve been struggling through. My eyes aren’t heavy yet so I’ll pour a shot of Jack Daniels. As the sweet, smoky flavor settles in my throat I’ll feel my chin drop toward my chest so I’ll take a last swig and make my way back up to bed where I’ll dream the dreams of a young man – a man just starting out – with three kids who adore him, a beautiful wife who dotes on him, a dog who will eventually bite him in the ass for teasing him with a ball, and a long life filled with salami, comedy, and love.