Exactly one hundred days after I witnessed the miracle of my father drawing in his final breath, I watched my son greet the world expelling his first like a light.
A moment later, I felt the tremendous weight of my father, his father and his father too as their hands came to rest on my shoulder. Their voices soft and knowing, joining me in the babble of this stream I am attempting to cross. Exactly halfway from either shore — life’s beginning on one side and life’s end on the other. The suddenly present and persistent undertow took my feet out from under me.
I righted myself in time to wipe my brow and nervously cut the baby’s cord with my eyes closed. Scared he would deflate as a balloon and float right back up to the heavens. I opened my eyes to find him there, that silent eternal stare of a human’s first minute. I took inventory on all his parts. The round face and pillowy cheeks of his mother. My spindly, irritated hands and spidery toes. Legs kicking his tiny motor to life. Oh the hills you will run and the seas you will swim!
And there was, amongst the blood and the gauze and the stage-fright lights and masked men and women of the real-life operating room which looked perfect and eager like on TV, an image of my father’s grin in his as the boy’s first involuntary smile succumbed to a wail.
I realized, for the first time, the fastness and certainty of life. And the book of fathers and sons had one more signature.
Several years ago, my father stopped by my place on a sunny winter’s Saturday morning. It was my birthday. Somewhere in the never land of my early or mid-30s though I cannot recall how many candles. I think the plan for the day was to ski, eat a burrito and drink some beer. Not bad for a birthday. Not bad for any day.
He’d gotten me a card. “Open it,” he urged. (I have a thing about opening cards in front of people, like it embarrasses me. I’d rather do it in private.) I obliged him and tore in the over-sized rattle-blue envelope. It was a little bear holding a big balloon and balancing on a ball with glittery puffy words that read, “Baby Boy!”
I smiled with intent and nodded and opened the card. In it, inscribed with his loopy, southpaw scribble were the words: “I will always love you like the day we met. — Papa”.
I paused and breathed in the way you do when you’re about to finish a book or that once-in-awhile end to a movie really does catch you off guard. I knew what he was trying to say, at least I thought I knew what he was trying to say and still — there were no words in me to say anything back.
This thing I could not say back hung in the cold mountain morning air between us. “Does this mean you’re going to go back and teach me how to ski again, this time the right way?” was what I managed.
He sniffed, because he was a crier, and wiped his nose. He stood and gave me a half hug, already making his way to the door.
“Anyway, I’ll see you up there maybe.”
I assumed he meant the ski hill.
“Yeah, I’m just going to get ready and then roll up. Maybe meet for lunch? Unless you want to wait and we can go up together?”
“I have to go get gas in the car,” he straightened and opened the door. “And go to the store. Your mother has a list. I’ll call you if I go.”
I did not see him the rest of the day. I’m sure I found a couple buddies and we found some beers hiding in a cooler and, well, that was the end of that birthday.
I stuck the card in a drawer somewhere, probably the same drawer that I forgot to clean out when I moved from the place. A drawer full of hidden treasures only men in transition have: casino chips, a flask with my initials on it half-filled with Wild Turkey from a long ago wedding. A dried flower that meant something to someone at some point. Expired condoms and a crushed restaurant mint. Pennies. Some crumpled but kept bar receipts with the deafeningly illegible tip and signature post last call. Faint reminders somebody paid rent late there for about a year and then moved on in a flourish.
I never thought of the card again, truth be told, until the boy was born. He was given all sorts of silly blue cards with balloons and glitter and puffy letters and bears on them. One-line messages from folks near and far about how much he was loved from that very day.
Over and over, each card reminded me more of the one my father gave me.
And over and over, I opened them in private and shed a quiet tear just as he had the day he gave me mine. You see, I believe in fathers and sons. I always have. I believe in the secrets they share buried in the words they do not. I believe in the trick of being a father and the task of being a son: you are always just one stitch off. To your mother, you are simply perfect. To the father, you are simply a better version of him, and that is more than perfection.
As I sifted through the opened envelopes, some now decorated with raindrop spots, I understood who my father wrote his card for several years and one hundred days ago.
And for that I can finally say, “Thank you Papa. We love you too.”
Photo: Erin Clausen Photography