December 7th is Pearl Harbor Day. And my dad’s birthday. A day that will live on in infamy. Pearl Harbor Day, not Dad’s birthday. (But really my dad lives on a bit infamously, too). On this historical day my father had a birthday, lied about his age in order to join the war early, went to the Navy, ended up teaching at the Naval College, dedicated his life to studying the causes of war, became a true dove — a Communist to many minds — and ended up having a Veterans for Peace chapter named after him in memoriam (https://www.vfp93.org/about). Just another life story, in the world of life stories, that swirls around our universe. There are so many of those right now, aren’t there?
I like to celebrate days of birth rather than death. Fact is I have a numerical disability so trying to remember too many dates just wouldn’t work for me anyway. But more importantly, it’s the birth of someone that means so much to me. I mean when folks pass, sometimes we say we have lost them. But for those who believe in heaven — or another form of afterlife, or just think of the departed a lot — don’t we really always know where they are? And anyway, once someone is born, if they make a mark on us, then they are never truly missing because we carry them around with us. That hurts sometimes, of course, because we want them to actually be with us. We want to speak to them, tell them things we are thinking, share stories. But we don’t get to have exactly that when they are no longer on this earth. And as this pandemic has shown us, we humans are not real fans of not getting what we want.
Sometimes it feels lonely to carry around the person who is no longer with us. Like a giant cut-out figure clipped from your life page, a hole where that person once existed. I miss my Dad’s physical presence (there was a lot of it), like his voice on the phone. (Even if he did have a habit of suddenly ending a call just when I thought we were deep in conversation). Strangely, right now there are a lot of of people my age who are almost glad that their elderly parents are not here anymore. We see our friends struggling to care for and comfort their own aging parents who are living in isolated senior facilities, or sequestered in faraway homes.
What would Dad have thought of this mess? Well, as with so many folks who have seen a few things, he would have known it would pass. (And he would be concurrently angry with the incompetence that is going on). I tried to explain this feeling of knowing things as we get older to my son. He said he understood. We were standing in the kitchen in our Airbnb in Sterling, Scotland. I was there for a conference and my son joined me from his temporary home in Berlin. It was a wonderful time. So we were talking about wisdom and aging and all that kind of stuff and I said there comes a time when the knowing goes from the head to the heart — or maybe even deeper in the body. Like I know this pandemic will end in a way that some younger people may just not be so sure. Because I have witnessed some horrors, globally, personally — and they are now in the past.
It seems to me it’s more about what we do in the midst. “In the Midst of It All,” is a song we sing in church sometimes:
“I’ve come through many hard trials
Through temptations on every hand
Though Satan’s tried to stop me
And to place my feet on sinking sand
Through the pain and all of my sorrows
Through the tears and all my fears
The Lord was there to keep me
For He’s kept me in the midst of it all.”
Here’s Yolanda singing it. (She needs no last name)! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWuUG_3EcTY
Anyway, what are we doing in the midst of it all? In the midst of the pain of missing a loved one? The death all around us? The immorality and violence being waged against the incarcerated, the African American, the poor…? One thing that older folks know about getting through things is you got to do something to get through them. After all, you can’t just pull up to a tunnel and then put the car in park and wait for the light at the end of it to come to you. Some people pray; some protest; some do both. Some love, and some learn.
I would like to call Dad today and wish him Happy Birthday. I would like to hear his righteous indignation at the laziness and selfishness being practiced in front of us by the powerful and not so powerful alike. And I would like to hear what it is he is doing in the midst. But I can’t. So I light a candle, emulating the Jewish Yahrzeit tradition — but honoring the birth, instead of the death. Because I’ll have you know Dad’s still very much hanging around — and he says I’ve got lots of work yet to do. So I better go.
Happy Birthday, Dad.