On my birthday last Friday, my father called.
“When are you coming home again?”
I’d told him a few weeks earlier that I was planning on going home for Father’s Day. I could celebrate with both my father and grandpa – two birds, one flight. Plus tickets were cheaper for Father’s Day than for Mother’s Day. People go crazy over their mothers. For their fathers, a little less so.
“I’ll be home June 10-17th,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Your mom and I have some other dinner plans, that’s all. Just want to make sure we’re home at least some of the days you’re home.”
I could hear my mother murmuring something in the background, and I wondered if she was reminding him that it was my birthday. Apparently not.
He proceeded to list a few dinners they had planned with their friends, encouraging me to go out and do my own thing on those dates.
“We’ll try to be at home as much as possible, so I’m just letting you know now these are the dates we won’t be home.”
“Ah,” I said, “Okay.”
In planning this trip home, I was entirely motivated by pangs of homesickness. Back in April, POI had gone to Virginia to see his parents on his birthday weekend. I envied him his parents’ proximity – a grueling bus ride, sure, but still shorter than the five-hour flight back to LA.
I go through phases: some weeks, all in a row, I have to remind myself to call my parents, but by the time I get around to calling, my mother calls me first and I feel like a shit daughter. Other weeks, when I feel unmoored (which is more often than not) I can think of nothing but my parents. Especially on my birthday, when feeling unmoored feels most acute.
I do it every year: assess, assess*. What have I done? What have I still to do? Where am I? And the answer is never very different from the year before, but still different. Like the face in the mirror: five, ten, fifteen years from now I’ll be noticeably different. On the inside too, though just so.
But people don’t really change unless they really want to. And most of the time, they don’t really want to. My father is a good example.
My mother, when she married my father, knew she was saying goodbye to romantic gestures. Sentiment in general, which my father sees as a sort of disease. A human shortcoming. In the four decades they’ve been married, they’ve never once celebrated birthdays with romantic dinners for two. No gifts. No flowers. I have never heard my parents say “I love you,” to each other. It’s (partly) a cultural thing, I think.
My mother wants few things aside from orchids and chicken fertilizer. The former she can buy on her own easily enough, often five or six pots at a time. For the latter, my father will accompany her to Home Depot on the weekends and spend the rest of the day spreading it about where my mother directs. He gripes about the smell and the strain it puts on his back and how sweaty he gets, but he comes in, hands filthy but feeling unmistakably energized. He’s made his wife happy – helped her garden grow – now he can shower and settle in front of the TV with some crackers and peanuts. It’s not romantic, but it’s love.
Watching my mother, I’ve learned to manage my expectations in regards to my father. The man who asks me every time we fight, “I understand you’re sad. But why are you crying?”
On the phone, my father asks me if everything is okay.
“Great,” I say. I know by now he won’t say “happy birthday.” I think he knows. I can’t be sure. he’s getting on in years – forgets things left and right, despite still being quick to point out things that others forget.
“Okay then,” he says, “I guess we’ll see you in June.”
“Yup, June,” I said, “For Father’s Day.”
“Yes, great. Father’s Day.” he pauses and for a minute I wonder if he’s remembered after all.
Perhaps he has, but he can’t articulate it. Sometimes, saying “Happy Birthday” is like saying “I love you.” Some people, like your father, shouldn’t have to. It’s implied.
“Well, have a good day then,” he says.
I say goodbye, a bemused smile on my face. In the missing word, I find the sentiment is there.