A Letter To My Father On What Would Have Been His 71st Birthday
Dear Daddy, Today would have been your 71st birthday.
A couple months ago, Jo Jo learned how to read. At first, I thought she was just memorizing, parroting words back. But one night I took out a Dr Seuss ABC alphabet book. You used to read it to her and Teddy, before you went blind. She hadn’t seen it in a couple years. We started the book, going through the letter sounds, and those first few words she got, “baby,” “bubbles”, and “bumblebee” I assumed were just dumb luck. But by the time we got to “horse” and “hay”, I realized she was actually sounding out each word, struggling through the syllables but reading nonetheless.
I started to cry. It brought back a memory of sitting in your family room when she was ten weeks old, holding her and sobbing because a geneticist I’d just brought her to had opined that her small head circumference boded poorly for her cognitive development. No, there was no research to back him up, but in his anecdotal experience the children with DS with such small heads never learned to read. Or write their names. Or even really to talk.
You sat across from me in the big striped ottoman and said quietly, “She will learn to read.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she is her mother’s daughter, and she has your determination,” you said.
You pegged my child right, even at barely three months old.
I wish you could have seen Jo Jo this year, Daddy. She learned to read, to finally write her name, to swim on her own in a pool without the safety of a turtle shell. I can picture you in the pool with her, beaming as she swims towards you, moving backwards slowly inch by inch until she finally paddles across the length of the pool on her own.
And the boys?
The boys are doing great. Teddy has inherited your love for numbers. He’s discovered how to add and subtract, first using his fingers and then realizing he can figure it out in his own head. He’s a little human calculator. I can picture the two of you, sitting on the old ratted sunroom green couch, earnestly discussing why it’s impossible to count to infinity.
Geoffrey has become enamored of puzzles. He will spend hours putting them together, his head tilted at just the right angle to amplify his vision. He loves building things. Legos. Train sets. Forts out of sofas. I look at him, tongue between his teeth in concentration, and I puddle up because it’s so clear that he’s 100% your grandson.
I took all three to Legoland a few months ago. Jo Jo was indifferent, the boys were enthralled. I cried when we walked into Miniland, a room filled with sparkling replicas of New York City icons. I could see you taking my two little boys by their hands and walking them over, patiently explaining the significance behind each landmark: the first time you saw the Statue of Liberty with your own grandfather, memories of going to baseball games at Shea Stadium, the fact that their great great grandparents had entered the country through Ellis Island. They would be excited, their voices rising over each other as they asked questions, and you would kneel down to their height and say solemnly “one at a time please” before hustling them over to the toy store to buy their own little Lego versions of the Empire State Building and White House. There would be more squealing and screaming followed by admonitions followed by ice cream and then we’d return home, where you’d spend hours helping them assemble their masterpieces.
And I’d watch and laugh, thinking, poor Daddy, after years of being forced to play Barbie Dolls with two girls he now has grandsons to build Legos with and take to baseball games and shoot basketballs with. He complains about his back hurting or how he’s too old to be down on the ground wrestling with two little boys but he’s really in pure heaven. But of course, you’re not here. Teddy asks where you are and I try to explain that you’re in heaven, looking down, that you may not be physically here but that you see us and everything we do. He furrows his forehead and looks concerned. “He’s up in the sky?” he asks, and then, “how many miles away is Pop Pop?”
I say I don’t know.
He doesn’t like this. “500 miles? A thousand.”
“It’s further than that,” I say vaguely.
He frowns. My son wants specifics. A million miles? A trillion?
“Maybe it’s infinity,” he says.
“Yes my love,” I say. “It is.”
He looks pensive. “But where is Pop Pop in the Universe,” he wants to know. “Is he closer to Mars, or closer to Uranus?”
At times like this I want you around more than anything. I know you would cuddle with my small son on the couch and explain the metaphysics of the afterlife so much better than I ever could. You would discuss the planets and how they turn and the concept of the Milky Way and all the different galaxies. The two of you would sit side by side talking earnestly—carbon copies of one another—and I would see by the slight smile at the edges of your mouth that you are relishing the way your first grandson’s mind works. It is, after all, an analytical mind much like your own.
I miss you so, so much, Daddy.
Happy birthday, wherever you are.