A birthday memory of my father

January 28, 1991. It was a Monday, like today. But not just any Monday. Today was my father’s fortieth birthday, and we were throwing him a surprise party.

Mom was good. She had lulled him into a false sense of security by making sure that we had celebrated a small family party the Saturday before. So, all the partying was done…right?

Oh, no. Not even remotely.

Somehow, we squeezed a bunch of people from our church into our house. After all, they wanted to celebrate their pastor’s 40th too! Then, we waited with bated breath for my father to walk home from work.

When he tells the story, he says that he was tipped off by large number of boots on the front porch. Winters in Erie, don’t you know? All that snow needed to stay outside.

And he stepped inside, to cheers and confetti, which got everywhere. We were still finding it years later.

It’s been twenty-two years since that surprise party. I was thirteen at the time. And so, there are aspects of what was going on that I totally missed.

First, you need to understand that Dad wasn’t walking home from the church. No, he wasn’t making enough pastoring to feed his wife and five children. He was walking home from the Quick Lube, where he worked changing oil during the week to make money to make ends meet. At the time, we must have only had one vehicle, which is why he was walking. Here’s an approximation of the route he would have taken. (At the time, Nagle Road wasn’t open, and I seem to recall that he couldn’t decide if he was okay with cutting across the tracks. If he was going the long way, the route would have looked like this.)

The short route is almost a mile. The long route is 1.6 miles.

Remember, it’s January. Dad was walking in the snow. On his birthday.

For me.

I’ve been spending a lot of time evaluating my life over the last year or so. And, so often, I find myself measuring myself next to my father. The calculus of this mapping can get a little tricky sometimes. Do I evaluate by age, like what was Dad doing when he was thirty-five? Or do I try to map “life stage” somehow? My oldest is almost fifteen. (Gulp.) So that’s closer to what Dad was doing when he was forty-one.

(Yes, these are the things I think about.)

In some ways, it doesn’t matter, because either method gets me to about the same place. When Dad was about at my age, he was walking two miles a day in the snow to try to juggle sermon preparation and dirty oil and a family who needed to eat and children who simply wouldn’t understand how tired he was and couldn’t know how much what he was doing was costing him.

I know I didn’t. It’s only now that I can begin to imagine how he must have felt.

But somehow, he still managed to be a father who was present in my life, who tried to forge connections with all of his children, who has succeeded in making all of us feel like his favorite.

And that’s what I really want to do with my life.

One of these days, I’m going to grow up. It’ll happen, I suppose.

And when I do, I want to be like my dad.

Happy birthday. I love you.

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