I knew my father loved me; there was never a question about that. But I also knew--I know--he hates to shop. Today he buys everything online. He is a seasoned internet shopper and has, I'm sure, links to his favorite online stores bookmarked. The only store I've ever seen him spend time shopping in is a bookstore.
Even as a young child, I knew Mom was the one who bought Christmas and birthday presents, since Dad was clearly as surprised as we were each time the wrapping paper was torn away.
I remember my fourth birthday.
I remember hearing him pull into the driveway. Maybe I was waiting for him by the window. Maybe the scent of a baking birthday cake drifted through the house. I remember running out to greet him. He must have reached over and opened the passenger door for me. The air in the van (when I was older we called vans like that kidnapper vans, you know, the kind without any windows in the back) was slippery with summer sweat and motor oil and the peculiar scent of hot iron, the scent of wrenches and pliers baking, waiting in the hot darkness to be used on the job. He had just started an electrical company when I was four, and I remember him being gone at work until late in the evenings.
I am sure he reached out a strong hand to help me clamber up into the van and sit beside him, and I remember seeing a package on the dashboard. It was wrinkled, torn a little in the corner. Maybe there was a ribbon on it. And I know he smiled at me when I saw it, his teeth flashing white in his dark beard.
"Is that for me?" I asked, holding out eager hands. "Daddy, YOU got me a present?"
"For you, Kee," he said, passing the gift to me. He didn't make me wait for mom to watch as I opened it. He just sat back and watched.
When I ripped open the paper, I found a stuffed dog with floppy black ears and deep black eyes. I slept with that stuffed dog held tight in my arms just about every night for the next dozen years. Today my toddler sleeps with it.
I always knew my father loved me, but he had never bought me a gift. Even now, I can't think of another gift from him that has that same significance. When I see that stuffed dog, its eyes a little less shiny, its fur matted, and its nose hanging on by a few threads, I think of what it means to have a dad like that, a dad who 1)remembered my birthday, 2)did something he hated (shopping) to make it memorable, and 3)continues to shower me with his love 29 years later.
He said, "Happy Birthday, Kee," but what I heard was "I love you." And I still hear it every time I see that ragged stuffed dog, every time I kiss him goodbye, every time I see him in myself.
Thanks, Dad, for being my heart.