The day I turned 50, my father called and said, “I can’t believe I have a daughter who is 50.” It was as if 50 had, just that morning, fallen unexpectedly into his world, like a giant slab of space shuttle debris plummeting out of a clear blue sky. As if my turning 50 hadn’t been preceded by my turning 30 and 40 and 48 and 49.
My 50th birthday stunned him. He tried to explain, but couldn’t. There were no words, he said. Speechlessness, for this man, was unusual. He always had something to say. On my 50th birthday he went mute. I held the phone waiting. But all he did was sigh.
I get it, I tell him today. Not in person but in my head where he lives and speaks, where he cautions and advises me, still. (“Don’t leave your car on empty. Especially in the winter. The gas will freeze,” I hear him say. “Slow down! Slow down. Why are you always in such a hurry?”)
Now you understand, he says, to me today on my son’s 50th birthday. Now you know how I felt.
I have hundreds of pictures of my son. They live in boxes and in photo albums and in multiple files on my computer. I can lay them out chronologically. I can make a slide show and watch him grow from an infant to a toddler to a child to a man. But I never saw this is real life. It just happened.
My son lives in New York City with his wife and three children. Before that, he lived in London and Florida and LA. He parachuted out of a plane once. He didn’t tell me for years. When he was 3 and 4 and 5 I knew every little thing he did. I knew his favorite foods, his favorite TV shows, his favorite songs.
I brought him home from the hospital four days after he was born. It was Thanksgiving Day. I wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a cradle my parents had bought for us. And a few days later, I took him for a walk in an English pram my husband’s parents had bought.
For years, I thought it was memories like these, a longing for the past that made my father mute on my birthday. I thought he was sad. I thought he was aching for what was long gone.
But here I am now, standing in his shoes. And I understand that it wasn’t sadness or a longing for the past that made it impossible for him to speak. It was intense gratitude for what was.
At the mall, riding up the escalator a few weeks ago, there was a little boy in front of me who had the same blond, wavy hair my son had when he was 3. The boy was wearing a navy blue button down Mr. Roger’s type sweater, the kind my son used to wear, and he was clutching his mother’s hand. I watched them as she looked down at him and he looked up at her, both of them smiling. And I thought, once upon a time, that used to be my son and me.
And then I thought, it’s still my son and me.
How lucky are we? That’s what I now know my father’s sigh meant. How lucky are we that we are both here, on this planet, that we have had all these years together? How lucky my father was to have survived a World War, combat, and malaria? How lucky to have come home and fathered a child. How lucky I was to have survived being born three months too soon at a time when most premature babies died. How lucky we got polio shots and not polio. How lucky he was, I am, and my son is to have survived illnesses and car accidents and bad decisions and near misses and the sheer randomness of disasters.
I had my father in my life for 50 years and he had me. Half a century. Now my son is 50. The realization that everyone doesn’t get this — that 50 doesn’t always follow 49, that our next breath is not guaranteed never mind our next year, that to actually have a child or a parent or anyone for 50 years — is stunning.
My father’s sigh wasn’t one of regret. It was one of wonder.
I know this because I breathe that sigh today.