Daddy's Birthday

Daddy's Birthday

A Story by Debbie Barry

This happened today, and I'm still pretty shaken. Names and places are real. The memories are the way I remember them.


Daddy's Birthday


“Here's the phone, Bob,” said Consuela.

The nurse held the phone to his ear.

“Hello?” he asked in a low, gruff.

“Hi, Daddy,” I said.  “Happy birthday!”

“Oh,” he said.  “Yes….”  

There was silence over the phone.

“I love you,” I said.

I heard movement on the other end of the phone.

“Daddy, it's Debbie,” I said, trying to coax him into remembering.

“Oh,” he said.  He sounded confused.

“Daddy, I just wanted to tell you I love you, and wish you a happy birthday,” I said.

There was a horribly, loud, empty silence, and then I heard him start crying.  

Keeping my voice light and happy, with great effort, I said, “It's okay, Daddy.  I love you.”

He was still crying.  

In the background, Consuela asked, “Bob?”

I heard movement, and I said, “It's okay.  I just want you to know that I love you.”  I felt desperately sad.  I wanted him to know his daughter had called him on his birthday, but the quiet sobbing on the far end of the line told me he didn’t know.  Worse, he was aware that there was something important that he didn’t understand or remember.

“Hello?” Consuela asked, taking the phone away from his ear.  Part of me was relieved that she noticed his distress, and took the call.

“Oh, hi,” I said, fighting to keep my voice as light as possible.  “I think he got confused,” I said helplessly.

“Yes, he's moving about, and upset,” she said, her soft, musical, Hispanic accent making her words crisp.

“He was confused when I called at Father's Day,” I said, my heart crumbling.  I struggled to keep the catch in my throat out of my voice.  “I wasn'6t sure if he could have a call today.”

“Oh, I see,” the nurse replied, her tone gentle, with the notes of one who’s seen far too many residents slip away this way.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I just wanted to tell him it's ….” My voice cracked.  I took a breath to gather my wits, and tried again.  “To tell him happy birthday.”

“Is it his birthday?” she asked.  “I didn't know.”

“Yes, he's 91 today,” I told her.

“Oh, that's good.  I didn't know,” she said again, her voice sympathetic, but with the clinical detachment a geriatric nurse has to have to do her job.

“Did they read him … did you read him his cards today?” I asked, trying not to sound too anxious.

“I don’t know.”  Her voice was hesitant.  Near her, in the background, I heard Daddy beginning to quieten.  I no longer heard the soft weeping, or the restless, agitated fidgeting.

“Could you make sure someone reads him his cards, please?” I asked.

“Did you mail a card?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “It should be in his room.  I mailed it over a week ago.”

“Oh,” she said, sounding uncertain.  “I'm sure, when they take him up, someone will take the cards down, and read them to him.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “Please make sure that people tell him ‘happy birthday’ today.  He's 91.”

“Yes, I will,” she promised.  “They told my sister someone would read him his cards, and give him a cookie, if he can manage it.”  The edge of my voice shattered.

“Yes, someone will.  I’m sure they’re up in his room.”  Although she was still polite and sympathetic, I heard in her voice that she was ready to move on to other duties.  It was a busy unit.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Merry Christmas!”  I meant it, but the holiday cheer took the last of my self-control.  I poked at the little, red telephone receiver icon to end the call.

Holding my phone cradled against my chest, I stared out the window, the tears smarting in my eyes as they blurred my already-dim vision.  I sat still, sobs shuddering in my chest, shaving my shoulders, my lower lip quivering.


Today was Daddy's 91st birthday.  I called him at his nursing home after Mass this noon, and the nurse who answered the phone in his unit told me that the Hospice nurse was with him, feeding him his lunch.  She told me to call back in half an hour.  

Knowing that their schedules are very tight, and that they put Daddy back to bed as soon as possible after his meals, I set the timer on my phone for 30 minutes.  I told my phone to play Hail Holy Queen on YouTube, while I waited.

Beep, beep, beep, beep.... Beep, beep, beep, beep!

It was my timer going off.  Thirty minutes had passed.  It was time to call Daddy again.

I told my phone to call Apple Rehab, and identified the town, so that it could dial for me.  In a few moments, a young woman, who identified herself as Lori, answered the phone.  I gave her my name, and told her Daddy's name, explaining that he’s a patient there.  For all the time he’s been there, the nurses and receptionists have known who Daddy is, and Lori was no exception.  I asked her to please connect me with his nurse’s station, and mentioned that he’s in Hospice, in case that had changed his location.  She brightly assured me that he’s still in the same unit. 

The young, Hispanic nurse, Consuela, who took my earlier call, answer the phone.  She had him ready, with his wheelchair next to the nurse’s station, because she knew I would be calling back.  She told me he was right there, and that she would stay at his side.  She said she would hold the phone, and make sure that he could hear me.  By the time the call ended, I was grateful beyond words for Consuela.

This has been a very difficult year in Daddy's life.  This year, he is experienced rapid weight loss, following some health problems.  He never did quite recover from the “little” stroke he had.  Not so long ago, I was told he was going into Hospice.  Just a few days ago, my eldest step-sister told me that he’d entered Hospice, and would now have a Hospice nurse looking after him.  At the time of year when most people are happily hanging greens and lights, I was talking to my step-sister, by email, about my father's funeral arrangements.  While most people were buying and wrapping Christmas presents, I was talking to her about his burial plot.  While others were practicing to celebrate with the music of Christmas concerts and pageants, we were talking about writing his obituary.

Ninety-one years is a very long time to live, and Daddy's had a good life.  There’ve been difficult times, as there are in every life, of course.  Sadly, two decades ago, or maybe longer, Alzheimer’s Syndrome entered Daddy’s life.  We don’t know for sure when it morphed from absent-mindedness to Alzheimer’s.  It could have been lingering in the shadows of his mind for many years before we started to notice it.  Somewhere along the line, the industrial engineer started giving way to the illness that now defines his life.

Other family members have different feelings about Daddy than I have, and choose to remember the past differently than I choose to remember.  Daddy and I had a long period of darkness, anger, misunderstanding, and distrust between us, but that was 30 years ago, when I was barely becoming an adult.  Others choose to remember the hurt of that time; I prefer to remember the healing.  After several years of not speaking to Daddy, I remembered a story he told me, which caused me to make the conscious, intentional choice to forgive him for his part in creating the silence between us, and to ask his forgiveness for my part in it.  My mother and sister didn’t understand my choice, and recent evidence has suggested that they still don’t.  His wife didn’t really understand, but she was willing to accept that we were repairing our relationship.

The story I remembered, which impelled me to seek the healing, was this:

Many years ago, long before I was born, Daddy had a terrible argument with his father.  Harsh, hurtful, angry words were thrown into the conflict from both sides.  Finally, a deep, hard silence formed between father and son.  The silence went on for a long time, and the estrangement fractured their family.  Then, his father died suddenly, without warning, from a cerebral hemorrhage, and Daddy wasn’t able to say good-bye.  There final words to each other were spoken in anger, and could never be taken back.  He wasn’t able to say he was sorry.  He wasn’t able to say, “I love you.” 

Daddy told me that story when I was 12 or 13, and again several times during my teens.  When I was finally able to see that history seemed to be repeating itself, and that my estrangement from Daddy had harmed my family in ways no one even seemed to realize, that story tugged at my memory.  I couldn’t bear the idea that Daddy might die with the cold emptiness of angry words between us.  The past happened, but it was in the past, and I had to make a better future.

Fifteen years ago, Daddy made his last long-distance drive in a car.  He drove from Vermont to North Carolina, so he could meet his two grandsons.  The boys were too young to remember the visit, but I told them about it during the years that followed.  I told them about Grandpa and Grandma Fletcher driving to meet them.  They only remember their other grandparents: my mom and step-dad.  Sadly, Daddy didn’t really remember the visit, either, for very long.  He and his wife retired to Connecticut, to be near her daughters, and he only drove shorter distances, until they finally made him stop driving entirely.

For about ten years, I reminded Daddy of my two sons each time we spoke on the phone.  I told him their names and ages, and the things they were doing as they grew up.  At first, he remembered their names, but that slipped from his memory.  He slowly ceased asking about them.  I sent him photos, carefully captioned, and his wife said he enjoyed looking at them.  When he looked at pictures, he remembered, for a short time.

Then, his wife died.  He was in the nursing home, because she wasn’t home to take care of him anymore.  She was in a different part of the facility, during those final days.  When he remembered being married, and asked for his wife, they told him she was sleeping.  After she died, that seemed like the gentlest kind of truth.  I flew to Connecticut for her funeral, and my cousin, Jimmy, Daddy’s late sister’s son, and I stayed by him through the funeral and reception.  Her five children stayed close at the church, but left us to ourselves at the family gathering, later on.  My heart broke at the funeral.  The flowers in the Congregational " sorry, United Church of Christ " church.  It was Congregational first, and is in my heart.  The portrait was lovely.  The crematory urn was elegant.  None of that mattered.  Daddy didn’t know it was his wife’s funeral.  A nurse’s aide brought him from the facility to the church, and he was there in body, but his mind was confused.  He thought he was at his mother’s funeral.  He went back and forth between knowing I was his daughter, and thinking I was his wife.  He wept for his mother.  Although Grandma Fletcher died 25 years after my grandfather’s death, Daddy’s confusion conflated her death with his estrangement from his father.  He was agitated and anxious, because he said he didn’t understand where his father was, or why his father wasn’t there.  I heard again the story of his argument with his father, but the story was fragmented, and his feeling of guilt cut at my spirit.

Back at the nursing home, my eldest step-brother, my elder step-sister, and I visited Daddy several times during the week that followed the funeral.  He didn’t seem to remember the funeral, and we didn’t talk about it.  I told him about my husband and children.  He thought I was still married to their father, and it wasn’t worth correcting him, even though I divorced their father long ago; I just talked about my current husband, and let him combine them.  He was generally happy.

After his wife died, Daddy remembered the boys less and less.  He didn’t remember that I live in Michigan.  I understood, though, and was happy to tell him all about our lives whenever I talked to him.  Over time, I simplified what I told him, because Daddy sounded confused when I told him too many details.  More troubling, Daddy didn’t know that his wife died.  When he asked for her, we all told him she was sleeping.  Sometimes, that didn’t calm him.  Her remains were buried in a family plot in Vermont, so we told him that she was in Vermont, with family.  That usually satisfied him, so he would be calm, and then he would forget again.

Two years ago, Daddy started telling me things that made me realize he thought, at least sometimes, that he was back in the boarding school, where he finished high school.  I found that Daddy was happier in our phone calls if I went along with the reality he was experiencing, rather than telling him he was a patient in a nursing home.  When he got agitated about wanting to leave, I’d remind him that Vermont was too far away to start a trip so late in the day, or I’d suggest that it was too hot, cold, wet, snowy, or whatever, to go outside.  Maybe it didn’t help him in the long run.  Maybe I should have tried to help him hold onto reality.  It seemed kinder to help him be happy and content.  Eventually, he stopped telling me those things, and just observed other patients and nurses in the corridors.

When I was a little girl, although my grandmother was the one who took me to the library, Daddy read to me at bedtime, sometimes, especially sea stories.  He read me his favorite book from his childhood, and it became one of my favorites.  He encouraged me to read Reader’s Digest.  When I was in college, he was proud of me.  I was studying to teach English, and that was something he understood and agreed with.  I graduated college after he went to the nursing home.  By the time I started grad school, he didn’t understand the details of what I studied.  I simplified it; I told him I was in grad school to teach English.

I never told Daddy when I went blind.  He was too confused to understand it, and I didn’t want to upset him.  I never told him about the three years I was sick.  I wanted to tell Daddy what was happening, but the Daddy from my teens, who wasn’t sick yet.  I couldn’t tell Daddy anything upsetting, when he wouldn’t remember it, anyway.  I didn’t want to upset him.

So, this afternoon, I sat there, tears streaming down my face, with these memories swirling in my mind.  Outside the window, the sky was grey.  The ground was covered with snow. 

“I love you.”  I tapped the SEND button, and an SMS text went to my elder son.  Moments later, the same message went to his brother.

Daddy lived with the guilt of the estrangement when his father died.  I think he wanted to hear his father say, “I love you” one more time, as much as he wished he’d said it to his father.  For as long as he remembered who I am, he told me, “I love you.”  I hope today is not my last conversation with my father, but, if it is.  I told him, “I love you.”

I hope I’ll be around to say, “I love you” to my sons for decades to come.

Happy birthday, Daddy.  I love you.

© 2017 Debbie Barry

Author's Note

Debbie Barry
Please let me know if you catch typos; it helps me. Initial reactions and constructive criticism welcome.

Please keep in mind that the opening scene is almost verbatim from a phone call early this afternoon. Please respect that. I don't usually ask for restraint in comments, but my relationship with my father has been known to elicit rather hurtful responses from certain quarters. Other than asking for respect for my father, please comment honestly.

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Featured Review

I will go back and check for typos, I was too engrossed in the story to noticed anything but what I was reading.
The emotion was very strong and that made it a very smooth read. Its crazy how something so heart breaking can be an enjoyable read. I am sorry that you have to go through this.
Loved it Deb!

Posted 12 Months Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Debbie Barry

11 Months Ago

Thanks, Diane! It was a terrible day, and writing it out really helped.


This is mind-blowing in every way. First & foremost, I have the utmost admiration & respect for YOU, becuz of the way you have dealt with the entire lifelong impact in such a loving, understanding way. Secondly, I love the way you share such vivid details that help everyone understand what it can be like to live thru this with a parent or other older person. Most of all, I love this passage: " I found that Daddy was happier in our phone calls if I went along with the reality he was experiencing, rather than telling him he was a patient in a nursing home . . . Maybe it didn’t help him in the long run. Maybe I should have tried to help him hold onto reality. It seemed kinder to help him be happy and content" -- that is one of the most amazing & loving things I've ever heard. As one with a severely broken family experience, I am in awe of you for the way you handle everything & it's a gift to share it with us (((HUGS))) fondly, Margie

Posted 10 Months Ago

I will go back and check for typos, I was too engrossed in the story to noticed anything but what I was reading.
The emotion was very strong and that made it a very smooth read. Its crazy how something so heart breaking can be an enjoyable read. I am sorry that you have to go through this.
Loved it Deb!

Posted 12 Months Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Debbie Barry

11 Months Ago

Thanks, Diane! It was a terrible day, and writing it out really helped.
words cannot express how deeply sorry i am. i can't even imagine how difficult this must be, for both you and your father. i'm also sorry that you've received hurtful responses about your relationship with your father. that's completely unnecessary and it's nobody's place to judge others like that.
personally i didn't catch any typos in this, though that could have been because for a few parts in this my vision was blurred by tears. very, very moving story and i wish you and your father the best.

Posted 12 Months Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Debbie Barry

12 Months Ago

Thank you, Pencil, for your kind words. I deeply appreciate them. Yes, it's a hard time, but the n.. read more
It must be so hard, watching a loved one slowly fade away like that. So glad you were able to reconcile with your father while there was still time. Gary is estranged from his sister, but I try to stay in touch with her. I so wish they could mend their differences.

Posted 12 Months Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Debbie Barry

12 Months Ago

Thanks, Wendy. (((hugs))) I'm grateful for it, too.

I wish Gary and his sister coul.. read more
I didn't see your note about typos until I finished the story--sorry. There were very few. Mostly, I was caught up in the story that bore similarities to events in my own life. A bit like you, my oldest sister held a grudge against our Dad for many years before eventually letting go of it. Alzheimer's is so cruel.

Posted 12 Months Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Debbie Barry

12 Months Ago

Thank you, Samuel. Don't worry about the typos; I always put that in the comments now. I'm sorry y.. read more

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5 Reviews
Shelved in 1 Library
Added on December 10, 2017
Last Updated on December 13, 2017
Tags: daddy, father, story, memory, hospice, alzheimer's, nursing home dementia, family, birthday, love


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..


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