I never thought I'd live past the age of 32. And here I am, 45. I can’t tell you how surreal it was to wake up in Sweden on the morning of my 32nd birthday. As my friends sang “grattis på födelsedagen” over my bed, I looked down at my hands and couldn’t believe I was still here.
My father died at 32. It’s strange to be far outliving him. He was my hero, despite the fact that he was unemployed, overweight, smoked, and drank too much. He had a walloping laugh that filled the room and called for a hard pat on the back. That coming September of ‘76 was going to be a big one for me. I was turning five and starting kindergarten the very same week. Every day he walked my little brother and me to the quiet school playground, where I would coil my fingers through the chain link fence and envision my new life at the end of summer. He'd sit me high on his shoulders, where I felt like I was on top of the world. He couldn’t wait to walk me to my first day of school and promised to throw me the biggest birthday party ever.
That August afternoon felt different. The scent of lilacs swept through the kitchen windows as my father broke down and cried at the table. Hunched over the job postings in the paper, deeply worried about money. As he stood up to take the dog out for a walk my mom hugged him and said, “At least we have each other.” He smiled, wiped his eyes, and headed out.
My father never returned from that walk.
Something is wrong, flashed deep in my bones. All traces of laughter drained from the rooms. The eyes of the visitors were vacant and lifeless, like the windows of a house in a blackout.
When I asked where he was, no one would tell me. They would just mutter, “He got a job. He went to work.” But deep inside I knew that not to be true. I'd lie in the grass, stare up at the clouds, and tell myself that I was lucky just to have him for that little glimpse of time. A week later I blew out the candles, my wish carrying the wisdom of an old woman who understands how precious life really is.