This story is by Kathleen McAllen and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When I left for college, I began acknowledging Dad’s birthday with a card every year and always called him on April 3, to sing happy birthday. He did the same and it became one of the little ways we stayed in touch. In recent years, I traveled back to Madison more often, out of concern for his health and the fate of his business. This year I decided to sing happy birthday in person.
I brought a wooden Mickey Mouse finger puppet I happened to find, lost in the back of my kitchen drawer because it reminded me of Dad’s Mickey obsession. I never shared his enthusiasm for the ever-cheerful mouse but accepted the occasional Mickey present. It’s a gift, be grateful, I told myself, as I displayed my new Mickey ornament commemorating Christmas 1991. My daughter shared Grandpa’s passion for Old Mick, memorizing the videos that infiltrated our house.
Dad’s intense love for Mickey opened the flood gates into the world of Disney collectibles, and he filled the closets of our old bedrooms with them. “They’re more valuable if you keep them in their boxes,” he once explained to me, as I gaped at the bulging treasures. Dad honed his collection habit in the food equipment business, and filled warehouses chock-full of refurbished slicers, mixers, dishwashers, and anything else needed to open a restaurant, including forks and knives. He was a devoted accumulator, undeterred by my assessment that it was a bunch of crap. “You never know when you might need something,” he would say and shrug his shoulders. Honestly, I don’t know how he kept track of his stockpiles. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to his storage methods.
Jeff joined me on this visit, and we stayed in the house I called home most of my childhood. I preferred the downtown vibe and always booked a hotel on the square, but Diann insisted we stay with them. We put our bags in my old room; I’d never slept there with a boy.
After settling in, Diann told us Dad was awake. She cleared the dining room out to accommodate the bed Hospice delivered the week before.
“Hi Dad, how are you doing?” I said.
“Well, what brings you here?” he said.
“We came to visit you.” I kissed him on the cheek and hugged him around his neck, as we pressed our heads together. Jeff shook his hand.
“Where do you live now?”
“We’re still in Lancaster.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
He looked small in the bed, yet content, like when he read the Wisconsin State Journal in his ancient easy chair. I noticed the hutch, with the dishes we only used for holidays, still in there, next to Diann’s corner of house plants. The chest with the TV loomed over the portable commode.
“He’s getting tired,” Diann said, after a short while. She fluffed his pillows, covered him, and offered a sip of water. “Do you want the radio on?” she asked, without waiting for his answer.
Willie Nelson filled the quiet and transported me back to childhood. I looked out the dining room window at the crumbling garage behind the house. I remembered how Dad spent entire Saturdays there, tinkering with his tools, surrounded by shelves and boxes of mystery items. The country and western station kept him company. Once in a while, I popped in to see him. “I hate country. How can you stand it?” I said, probably every time. He ticked off a few merits of the offensive crooner, as I ignored him and scanned the chaos of the workshop. There was no place to sit and it smelled like the inside of a gas station. Mom became physical often, sober or not, and my sisters and I learned early to steer clear of trouble, while Dad puttered around his garage. On the bad days, I ignored the smell in his den, seeking refuge and a hug, and the comfort of his warm hankie pulled fresh from his pocket.
Nostalgia filled me as we sat at the kitchen table, waiting, passing the time. I reminisced about the hours Dad played cribbage—a fifteen two, a fifteen three and a pair is seven—in my misguided recollection of the game, I sing-songed to Jeff.
“He indoctrinated me into 52 Pick Up. How could I fall for that?” I said.
“You played a lot of cards?” Jeff said.
“Not really, mainly on holidays. Dad had marathons with Grandpa and my uncles, no one else could use this table.”
My mind bounced from memory to memory, including seven months earlier when we lingered over a two-hour breakfast at Denny’s. Dad was alert and eating better, a positive outcome of spending three days a week at the memory care center. I usually had my way, and we would go to the breakfast place at the airport, but that time Dad had his and we went to Denny’s. The waitress filled our mugs until we were coffeed out. Dad was cheeky, it was a good day.
“What’s going on in the kitchen?” Dad said.
“Oh, the guys are degreasing the parts inside the hood vents,” the waitress said.
“It’s good to see young folks working hard.”
“Yeah, I’m always working, I have a five-year-old at home.”
I tipped the waitress extra for rolling with his inquiries and jests: The higher the monkey climbs the tree, the smaller his ass appears to be. The morning at Denny’s I laughed with him, unbothered by his nosy questions and the other patrons not minding their business.
The choice of the restaurant didn’t matter because I glimpsed my old jovial dad, throwing in his two cents in the conversation. Out of nowhere, he said, “I was always embarrassed.” A revelation I never knew about him. I wondered if we touched on a sensitive topic, making him feel self-conscious. I pressed him for more, but his lucidity faded.
Dad never wore his worries on his face and he relished in moments of lightheartedness. As if he sensed the mood turning serious, he’d make us groan and roll our eyes when he stuck out his finger, hey, pull my finger, or tap us on the back, guess who’s back? I didn’t appreciate his corniness or the random conversations he started with complete strangers back then.
Jeff and I followed the scent of coffee the next morning and found Diann standing in the kitchen with a mop.
“Another rough one,” she said, still in her pajamas, her eyes rimmed with dark circles.
“What happened?” I said.
“He’s supposed to call for me. He forgets and has accidents.”
We filled our mugs and went to check on Dad.
“What brings you here today?” he asked.
“We came for your birthday, Dad,” I said.
“It’s Jeff. You remember Jeff, my husband.”
“Oh, that’s right.” He chuckled.
All-day we wandered in and out of the dining room, between his naps and Diann’s best attempts at getting him to eat, and walked their Bichons out by the old garden. Around four, Diann’s brother arrived, and soon after her daughter walked in with a carrot cake.
“What’s going on?” Dad said as we assembled around his bed.
“It’s your birthday, honey,” Diann said.
“You’re the birthday boy!” I said.
We sang happy birthday, while Dad smiled and bobbed his head along with the tune, enjoying the attention. I presented him with the first slice of cake, adorned with the finger puppet, and pulled the table closer for him to see.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“It’s a Mickey finger puppet. Put it on,” I said.
I squeezed in next to him, as he waved the tiny Mickey on his finger like a coveted cereal box prize. Jeff snapped a picture on his cell phone: Dad and me both laughing, as we admired the haphazardly painted Mickey Mouse imposter. The picture caught a twinkle in his eyes that always sparkled when he smiled; the last moment of joy we shared together.
After dinner, I sat on the chair next to Dad’s bed watching him watch TV. He was startled when he turned his head and saw me there, and without a word rolled back to the loud drone. I touched his shoulder and left my hand there to feel his warmth. I pondered the embarrassment he mentioned a few months earlier, and whether it was still on his mind, or if he thought of anything at all. I dabbed my eyes with my sleeve, wondering if he understood his body’s slow shutdown. I knew this would be his last birthday party; no more singing, cards, or gag gifts. My heart ached for a goofy joke, breakfast at Denny’s, another year.
“I’m so happy I came home for your birthday, Dad.” He half glanced back at me as I caressed his arm. “I love you.”