Yes, it is my birthday today but it’s not. Today is the 15th anniversary of my Dad’s death. I don’t know what to do with this. It’s been 15 years and I still don’t know what to do with it. I am working at the hospital for the evening. It’s the same hospital where my mom and aunt where told that Dad didn’t make it.
As a minister and chaplain, one would think I can come up with some comforting words to bring all this together, but I can’t. As I sit with families of patients who suffered a cardiac arrest in the ED, I provide a presence knowing there is no way I can make things better. I provide emotional and spiritual support for when they hear the words, “We did all we could. I’m sorry.” My mom and aunt didn’t have that support. My aunt wished they had a chaplain. Ironically, 15 years later, I am one of the chaplains who sit beside the family when they hear those words. I stand at the patient’s ED room to pray for the medical staff and for the patient as they work to save a life. My Dad didn’t have that prayer. The only words spoken were, “We did all we could. I’m sorry.”
I miss my Dad. I still don’t know why he had to die on my birthday. Nobody has been able to tell me yet. Before 1997, I celebrated my birthday with giddiness. I liked the attention. It felt good to have people showing their love and affection to me. Even that Thursday in 1997, I answered the phone at around 3:00 am, thinking that someone was wishing me a very early birthday. A voice from within said to me, “Don’t say a word.” Instead of a friend calling to wish me a happy birthday, it was my aunt. “Your mom and I are at MCV. Your Dad had a heart attack tonight and he didn’t make it. He’s dead.” No. It wasn’t a birthday greeting. I miss my dad.
That night my father was ready at the funeral home. It was mostly family and close friends who were there. On this day, I wouldn’t go in the room with him. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t going to see my lifeless father on my birthday. People understood and came into the waiting area where I stayed. My cousin Gordon hung out with me most of the evening. He helped me to laugh. I felt loved. I will never forget that.
Ironically, I am a chaplain in the hospital where they did all they could. I worked with the cardiac patients my first semester as a resident. I was amazed at how far medical technology advanced in 15 years. I saw patients who recovered from inconceivable odds because they had the best of the best doctors and tools. I watched men and women who with newly transplanted hearts, walk down the hallway with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. I cheered them on. I stood in front of them and danced to make them move and laugh. Then I sat beside their bed and prayed voices of thanksgiving, just weeks after speaking uncertain prayers for whenever a heart may come. When life was once uncertain, these patients started new lives and new births. Every year on the anniversary of their transplants, the patients declare “It’s my birthday today!” That day changed all the previous birthdays.
When I was born on February 27th, the nurses told my Dad that I was a boy (I have 3 older brothers). My Dad said, “Shove it back in there”. He wanted a girl. I was Daddy’s girl. Everyone knew it: from my mom, to my brothers, to my dad’s buddies on the construction sites. He worked construction all his years. That’s why he had the most wonderful tan in the world. Just don’t ask him to pull up his shirt. A construction worker who fed a family of six, and he still managed to teach me a few things.
He taught me to fish with a bamboo pole and bobber on the pond in our neighborhood.
He introduced me to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and fishing off the Nags Head Pier. We started a Father’s Day tradition shortly after that. Every Father’s Day, Dad and I got up early in the morning and went to Buckroe Beach to go fish off Buckroe Pier. Sometimes we drove down to Nags Head for the day and fished off the Nags Head Pier.
When I did children’s sermons in the worship services, I always had a special message on Father’s Day Sundays. I brought a fishing pole to the service and told the children about my fishing trips with Dad. It was important that we spent time together. Jesus Christ also spent time with his Heavenly Father. I talked to the children about how important it is to spend time with our Heavenly Father, who will teach us so many things, most importantly – that we are special and we are loved.
Before 1997, I had birthdays when I was giddy and excited. 15 years ago, all that changed. This day is not so exciting and celebratory now. Right now, I can’t imagine it ever will be. I am thankful for people who call me, wish me a good day, take me out, and reach out in ways that allow me to feel loved. That means a lot in a way I wish I could tell you. Know that throughout the day though, I am thinking about my Dad. I have to because this day is no longer about my birthday. It is about the day he died.
I will spend time with both my Fathers today. I will spend time with my Heavenly Father. I need to learn from God about my life and what it’s meant to become. I haven’t done that in a while and God is sitting on the pier waiting for me to arrive. I can see a fishing pole ready for me to cast and see what’s out there. He has some things to teach me and I need to listen to Him. I will also spend time with my Dad. Because I am working, I will be back at the place where he died and wonder how it happened and wonder what if a chaplain was there for support. I will wonder if I can be that chaplain that my family and Dad didn’t have. I want to make them both proud.
Dad, I miss you terribly. You loved me, taught me, and showed me what it means to work hard and do what is right. I wish so much you hadn’t died on my birthday. But if there is anything good that came out of it, it is this. You were taken to Heaven. You met God on this day and started a new life with Him, watching over me. I see you standing beside God today and I know you are smiling. The last 15 years have been hard, but I take comfort in knowing where you are.