You would have been 80 years old today. I keep trying to picture what you would be like now, as a little old man. I imagine you with your grandkids, trying to talk them into clipping your disgusting toenails, or asking them to go catch gophers in your yard- anything to make them laugh.
It may surprise you to know that I think of you all the time. In the ten years since you've been gone, I bet I've thought of you every day. I have trouble talking about you sometimes without getting a lump in my throat.
I've told your grandkids all my stories about their Papa. They've heard about the fact that you let me believe you were an Indian until I was well into adulthood, and how I always believed you had served in Korea, when in fact you were stationed in Oklahoma at a desk job (by the way, I think you passed your fondness for lying to children on to your daughter. I had Evan believing that we hoped he'd be a dwarf. I told him we'd prayed throughout my pregnancy that he'd be one. An odd lie to tell, I know, but one that would've been right up your alley).
They've also heard about that time you introduced their Nana to someone and said she washed dishes for a living, even though she was a Vice President. They love that one. Hahaha- Do you remember how mad she was over that? Good times.
They know that every time I went with you to Dixon's Chili (which is still the best place to eat on Earth), you would say, "You can have all the crackers you want here. As many as you can eat." When we go to Dixon's now (which is rare- I'd give anything for some of their chili right now), we sit at the table where you often sat, and we pass around the cracker basket in your honor. Someone will say, "All the crackers you can eat!" And we laugh. I always have to blink my eyes really fast so the tears don't fall out.
I'm always recalling how much you loved the boys and how they loved their Papa. Your little buddy, Alex, is a man now. And he's a good man. He's smart, hard-working, and handsome. Mike and Evan are awesome, good-looking young men, too. They both plan to go into the Service, which I know would make you proud. They all remember how you'd let them run around in your garden and smash the watermelons that were rotten. Tucker has grown into a great kid with a heart of gold. I wish you could have had more time with him. Now, he'd talk your leg off. You would probably say something like, "Garsh... You can talk just like your mom." But then you would let him go on and on, acting interested in everything he said, I'm sure.
I have a picture on the wall of you holding baby Olivia, shortly before you died. You'd be amazed to see her now. She's almost 11 and the sweetest little girl. She has such a big, beautiful heart.
Dad, I've added two more children to the bunch since you died. We adopted both of them and I often wish you could have been around to share our excitement over their arrivals. I think you would have been one of the few people to be happy for us and I know you would have loved these kids so much. You now have five gorgeous grandsons, and two beautiful granddaughters, from our bunch, who would have easily wrapped you around their little fingers.
Bri never got to know you, but she would absolutely be a Papa's girl. She loves to laugh, and I know you'd be egging her on, trying to get her to giggle. Our newest addition, Sam, would be the apple of your eye. You'd get a kick out of watching all the funny little things he does. He reminds me of you in a lot of ways- his big brown eyes, some of his facial expressions, and his headful of dark hair, just like yours. His middle name is Robert, after you, Dad.
I know you'd be so proud of them all and I wonder sometimes if you would be proud of me.
I often think of that last day together, just you and me. I knew I'd have to leave you soon to start the long drive back home and I kept hoping I'd be able to have a conversation with you. My heart told me it would be my last chance. You would hardly speak. If you tried, it was a garbled whisper. You could barely stay awake. I remember asking if you were scared. You looked up at me and answered with one small nod of your head. I could see by the look in your eyes that not only were you afraid, but also that no one had bothered to ask you about it before that moment. You almost looked relieved that I asked. I think maybe you wanted someone to talk about what was happening to you.
You looked at me with the eyes of a terrified child and in that moment, you were no longer the uninvolved, alcoholic father I spent my youth blaming for everything wrong in my life and the source of so many painful and embarrassing memories. I ran my fingers through your hair and said, "I love you, Daddy." I couldn't recall the last time I'd called you Daddy or said I loved you. Did I ever?
I asked you if you'd like to pray. Remember that? You nodded again and one tear rolled from your eye into your hair. I took your hand and you held onto mine so hard. I was surprised you had that much strength, but you did. As I prayed aloud for you and with you, your eyes were closed and I thought you'd drifted back to sleep, but at the end of the prayer you said "Amen" in a loud, clear voice. It was the last thing I ever heard you say.
I think of the day of your funeral. I don't know if you could see me, but if so, I imagine you being shocked. I hadn't expected to cry that much. I don't know where all that emotion came from, but I wasn't prepared for it and I couldn't stop. I think the thing that hit me so hard that day, Dad, was the feeling that I hadn't had enough time. I felt as if I'd barely gotten to know you; I'd barely scratched the surface of who you were.
I don't remember ever being Daddy's little girl. I don't remember you ever acting interested in me as a child. I don't remember you ever saying you were proud of me or "I love you."
Now, looking back, I see clues that you loved me. Like the night I was put in the hospital for five long months at age 14. I was scared to death. I didn't want to be there. I was led away by a nurse and heard the big heavy door shut behind me. I turned to look over my shoulder and I saw your face in the tiny, square window. Your eyes were filled with tears. That was your "I love you." You didn't want to leave me there. I was too angry with you at the time to notice that or care.
I grew to truly love and appreciate you by watching you love my children. I was finally seeing your heart. I think that was the biggest and best gift you ever gave me, Dad- you loved my babies... and you let them know it.
Growing up, I never really felt like I'd had a father, but my babies had a wonderful Papa, and through them, I saw sides of you I'd never known were there. I realized, by watching you with them and seeing your love for them, that you had probably always loved me, too- I'd just never seen or felt it. I believe now that you did the best you could, Dad. I think maybe you loved me the best you knew how, at the time.
I think of all the times, as a grown woman, you'd insist on giving me twenty dollars for gas money to drive back home after a visit, even though I'd always tell you I didn't need it. That was an "I love you." Now, I miss those twenties. They were always covered with creases from the way you'd fold them into tiny squares and stash them in that secret pocket in your wallet so mom wouldn't snatch them. I wish I would have saved one of those because I've often told the kids about Papa's folded, hidden twenties.
It took most of my life to get to the good part of having a dad. And then it was taken away so quickly. I wish I'd had just a little longer. I wish I could hear you laugh again. I wish you were here to make me laugh again. I could really use it right now.
And can you believe Mom is dating a guy with an earring? I mean, seriously... I can see the look on your face about that, with the rolling eyes and everything, and I'm sitting here laughing all by myself. He's good to her, though, and I know you'd like that part. You'd probably sit and have a beer with him.
I love you, Daddy. And I miss you. I really do. Happy birthday.