For my dad, for all dads

©2009 Ellen Notbohm. Please contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including re-posting on the Internet.

Earlier this year, my family observed the 1oth anniversary of my father’s last birthday. He spent his last Father’s Day at my son Connor’s Little League game. No one could have know that it was his last Father’s Day, but even if we had, I think he possible he would have chosen to spend it at the game anyway. Dad and Connor were big baseball buddies.

I wrote about my father’s last birthday on my Facebook page, a column that drew many and varied reactions from joy to regret to admiration to plain old nostalgia. A non-Facebooker asked that I re-run the column here, and I am happy to do it.

Ten years ago in February my father observed what would be his last birthday. I can’t say we celebrated that birthday; he was in the hospital and though we didn’t know it (or were in denial), he was only days from leaving us. I did send him a balloon bouquet, but it seemed so lame. Even when in robust health, he was hard to buy for. He never wanted typical “dad” stuff, the newest combination ant farm/hairdryer gizmo or smelly aftershave named after a celebrity he’s never heard of. And a recliner? I only saw him in one of these the last few weeks of his life.

For the first few years after my dad passed, his birthday was agonizing. Now I experience it as sort of a reverse holiday — a time to think, not of what material gift I might give him, but of the priceless gifts he gave me. Near the top of that list is the gift of wacky memories. Not the noble and endearing stuff like coming to all my piano recitals and saying my prayers with me every night, but the stuff that only my dad, among all dads on the planet, would do. When young and foolish, I may have been embarrassed by his antics. I am now (as Mark Twain so aptly put it) old and foolisher, and I am PROUD of him.

For instance:

  • Dad kept a tape in the car cued up to the War of 1812 Overture, complete with real cannons. When a teen in a souped up car would pull up next to him, radio blaring, Dad would blast the kid out of the intersection with Tchaikovsky. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dat DUM DUM! BOOM!! This became perhaps his most enduring stunt. While in Edmonton in 2008, I had the great good fortune of meeting and befriending a favorite author of mine, Tony Cashman, a well-known Alberta historian. He, a master storyteller, was so taken with this story about Dad that he worked it into one of his lectures. “One of the funniest things I ever heard,” Tony wrote to me. “Everyone I pass it on to is cracked up by the image…”
  • When screamed at on the streets of downtown Portland by religious or political fanatics, he would calmly listen to what they had to say before politely inquiring, “Does your mother know what you’re doing?”
  • He loved to visit the crusty fountains in Ashland’s Lithia Square that bubble and spit Lithia water, a sulfury-smelling natural mineral brew said to impart healthful qualities. Dad, in his fifties and older, always had a field day with tourist kids on the square. He actually liked the Lithia water, drinking it in big slurpy gulps (for effect, people – for effect!). Children would stare at him in stark horror, “ewwwwwww!” “It’s good for you!” he would tell them jovially. “Look at me! I’m 27 and I don’t look a day over 18!” Exeunt screaming children, stage left.
  • Meeting me for lunch one memorable day, he came in chuckling. While walking from his office, a person of questionable mental state had followed him for blocks, muttering “Stop following me, man! You’re following me!” Dad had finally turned around, drawn himself up to full height and addressed the young man: “Cease your harassment of me while I am attempting to proceed unimpeded to my destination!” Turns out there was nothing impaired about the pursuer, as he stopped dead with, “OK! Sorry! Sorry!” and ran. Dad was a big believer in the power of the English language.

I’m sitting here writing this at all because he first worked his brand of offbeat magic on my mother. When on their first (blind) date he asked her, “Shall I impress Superwoman by playing the buffoon, the sophisticate or the intelligentsia?” – she was hooked. He had done all three at once, in the space of a single sentence.

I can smile at all this now, but losing Dad was harder than I could ever have imagined. And on top of my own grief, having to explain it to a very literal-thinking six-year-old with autism was a challenging process that took half a year. That the body ceases to function but the spirit is inextinguishable. That the part we see and touch and hear goes away but the part we can’t see can never be taken away from us. Ironically, in the years since Dad passed over, I’ve been able to see and hear and touch parts of him that I never did while he was alive. In many ways, we are closer now. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’ve become a better listener.

Many people cherished Dad, evidenced by the flood of letters and emails we received after his death. Quite a few were extraordinary remembrances from friends stretching back through is career, his military service, his college years, his childhood. But one has stood out all these years. It came from a coworker of mine, a person who had never even met Dad.

“I lost my father to cancer almost 15 years ago, so I can relate to the struggle and heartache that you are going through. It is hard to let go of the ones who brought us into this world, but there comes a time when their pain and suffering must cease and we have to forge on without them. You will never be alone. You will have your memories of your time with your Dad and somehow magically your boys will have an expression of look that will remind you of him…”

She was so right, and I have borrowed her words many times since.

It’s been ten years, and if I allowed myself, I could become very sad dwelling on all the things Dad has missed – Connor’s entire swimming career (Dad was a master’s swimmer), my entire writing career (particularly my genealogy writing, which he inspired), the marvelous achievements of Bryce, not to mention all of his other grandchildren. But it doesn’t feel crackpot to believe that he hasn’t missed it all, that in fact he’s had a front row seat. Just as my friend promised, I have never been without him. Ten years on, I spend more time thinking about having him than losing him.

His birthday was February 26. February is a pretty dreary month here, and when I was child, I felt sorry for him having a birthday at such a nondescript time of year. After his death, I came upon an essay in which he wrote about his February birthday. He greatly admired Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and it was, he said, a source of great pride that he shared a birthday month with them.

This is a small, small example, and I could give you a thousand more of how he both knowingly and unknowingly forced me to look at my beliefs and thoughts from different perspectives. Some have called me “high-minded” because of it. But what a gift. I’m just as opinionated as the next blowhard, but I hope I arrive at my positions more thoughtfully than emotionally.

So it may sound odd but I feel much more celebratory on this birthday than I did on his “last” birthday ten years ago, he, hooked up to a morphine drip and worried that this was the way his grandchildren would remember him. (Connor was SO insulted by that.) If you’re still with me here, please honor my dad’s birthday by taking a moment to honor your own dad, wherever in the cosmos he may be, and thank him for the gifts he most certainly has given you, whether you know it yet or not.

©2009 Ellen Notbohm

Four-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of Ten Things Every Child  with Autism Wishes You Knew and three other award-winning books on teaching and raising children with autism. For book excerpts, to contact Ellen or explore her work, please visit