My task: use a simple object as a prompt and “free write.” Allow the writing to go where it wants to go … When I began writing yesterday afternoon, I had no idea I would end up writing an essay about my father. I give this same advice to the students I coach through the college admissions process … in the beginning, just write and see what story emerges.
I turned eighteen on my father’s forty-first birthday. Every year on March 6th, he would say the same thing to me: “You were the best birthday present ever.” When my sister Beth and I were teenagers, we dubbed him “J,” a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life. Beth and I were into nicknames then, called our mother “Madre,” why I can no longer remember. J was short for John Boy, the earnest eldest son played by Richard Thomas in the 1970s TV series, The Waltons. I guess our J reminded us of John Boy—honest, solid, kind, optimistic—or maybe Beth and I were just being smart alecks.
My dad died too young, a couple of months after my fiftieth birthday, his seventy-third. He had lived with Parkinson’s disease for twenty-two years. He’s buried in Montauk, New York, where my mother still lives. I visited his gravesite this Monday, after another burial, the dad of my good friend Christine and her three siblings. Their father, Jack, eighty-seven, had lost his wife to cancer many years ago. Jack loved to stand at the top of the bluff of our neighborhood beach, fishing pole on shoulder, checking to see if “the blues were running.” My dad liked to do that too, or fish from his friend Lou’s boat, or dig for clams in Napeague Bay. He’d come home and cook linguini with clam sauce, opening those clams with determination, despite his limited dexterity.
The man loved to cook, and he loved to eat and garden. And he loved his wife, his daughters, his four grandchildren. He’d get all choked up as he exclaimed about Will, Patrick, Rob, and Claire. Wow, if he could only see them now.
I miss him. Birthdays are different now.
On my eighteenth birthday in 1979, J probably wrote “You were my best birthday present ever” in a card, enclosed in the airmail package that also contained the silver “Happy 18th Birthday” pendant pictured above. I was an exchange student that school year in Knutsford, a small town halfway between Manchester and Chester, in northwest England. Went to the local pub on March 6th and drank my first legal beer. Didn’t get carded.
I did get carded, however, in late March 2000, on opening day of what was then known as Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park), in Houston, Texas, where the Astros played. In most cases, this would have been flattering at age thirty-nine, but that day, the first the ballpark was open, I was not flattered. I didn’t have my driver’s license with me.
The well-meaning employee, her first day on the job, as it was for everyone, refused to serve me. I refused to leave. I had waited twenty minutes in line for that beer! I pulled off my baseball cap, showed her a few gray hairs that had sprouted. I pointed to the crow’s feet on the edges of my eyes. She wouldn’t budge. I asked to speak to her supervisor, who took one look at me, and said: “It’s okay, you can serve her.”
I probably told my dad that story, and I’m sure he chuckled. He was my number one fan, told me I was beautiful. And I felt beautiful when I was around him.
I made it to his bedside two days before he died. His eyes were shut when I arrived and never opened again until he took his final breath. “J, I’m here,” I said when I entered his bedroom, saw him lying peacefully in his hospital bed. He lifted his head ever so slightly, pursed his lips, and tried to kiss me. I leaned over and he did.
His final offering to me.
John Joseph Mullen, March 6, 1938-May 20, 2011.
My birthday twin. A life well lived, in love.