An Open Birthday Letter

What will happen tomorrow?

As I ask myself this question, I feel, perhaps with many others across the nation and the world, a lurch in my stomach. It’s not an enjoyable question to let lurk in one’s mind, no matter what end of the political spectrum you might land on. Yet the question lurks all the same, at least for me.

We’ve heard the debates, watched the news reports, and scrolled dismally past belligerent comments sections on social media feeds… so much seems to be riding on tomorrow. But many have already written on political polarization, on economic panics and pandemics, and so I don’t find too much use in elaborating on those topics in this post. With what we face tomorrow, I wonder what might I say here that could, maybe, garner reassurance rather than trepidation, gratitude rather than anger. True, a post with such aims might seem to some like more of an unserious diversion from the gravity of tomorrow’s election. But I need a diversion.

I’m looking for a new question to ask myself.

What else will happen tomorrow?

Pause.

It’s Dad’s birthday.

That lurch in my stomach shifts ground, seeping upward towards my chest and throat. That’s my body’s emotional hub, the teary-smile zone. Even with a day like tomorrow on its way, the answer to my second question helps me believe that not all days in 2020—even the ones that have been circled on our calendars for months now—are destined for gloom. In writing this today, I’m trying to turn the table on tomorrow. Rather than focusing on the two men the world will be observing so closely tomorrow, I want to turn my attention to another man, a man who has kept my spirits afloat both in this difficult year and throughout all the years of my life. I’m going to make tomorrow about gratitude, gratitude for a dad who helped me learn to deeply read literature, to unabashedly rock out to the great guitar solos of the 70s and 80s, to doggedly hike, bike, or run along a trail despite the aches, to earnestly listen and learn from others, and to unendingly love a family. And so, if you’ll indulge me, I’m turning the remainder of this post into a diversion, or perhaps better said, into a devotion. This is tomorrow’s birthday letter to my Dad.

* * *

Dear Dad,

First and foremost, happy birthday. Though I’m tempted to crack an old-man joke, I have to remind myself that I started writing this letter at about 10 A.M, around the time when I staggered back out of bed after our 5:30 A.M. call time to go to the gym, a call time which, despite your age, you never seem to struggle with. I almost always feel as exhausted when I meet you in the parking lot as when we’ve finished our workout, but I’m impressed by the energy you seem have throughout the morning. Even though I sometimes resent those 5:30 A.M wake up calls, I’m grateful to be there with you and to admire the energy that you bring on those Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

For your birthday, I want to tell you about those things that, like your 5:30 A.M. energy, I admire about you. I feel I can hardly capture the impact which being the father and friend that you’ve been—the father and friend I’ve most needed and least deserved—has had on me. And so, for this letter, I’ll avoid trying to say everything imperfectly or incompletely and instead try to say something to the fullest, most earnest extent that I can put into words.

In fact, words are what I want to talk about in this birthday letter. You were the one that first taught me about words. You showed me how to write and to love writing. From school assignments, sacrament meeting talks, applications, resumes, or pieces of feeble poetry, you’ve always been my first and final editor, reader, critic, and advocate of anything that I’ve written. I hope to someday live up to the high standard you set in your own writing, be it the satirical Christmas newsletter you’ve sometimes circulated within our family, the thoughtful and provoking talks you’ve penned for church meetings, or the beautiful and poetic letters you write for Mom each Christmas.

But you’ve also shown me the power of other types of words, words different from those that you or I have assembled on physical or digital pages of actual writing. I’m talking here about nonphysical words, words that take shape through the combination of experiences, events, and emotions rather than through the combination of letters or symbols. Those mornings together at the gym, the hikes and bike rides we’ve tackled, the basketball games we’ve watched, the discussions (sometimes debates) we’ve held, the dumb jokes we’ve cracked, the phone calls we’ve made, the voicemails we’ve left, the tears we’ve shed, and the hugs we’ve exchanged – all of these shared moments are to me the letters, symbols, or characters of my life that, when combined, form words that feel akin to literal words like these:

Trust. Compassion. Determination. Commitment. Endurance. Peace.

I’m grateful to have had these sorts of words accompany me throughout my life. In a time when so many words feel geared towards spreading dislike, discord, and division, I feel humbled and grateful to pause and reflect on the words that I’ve gathered and learned from you. Thank you, dad, for teaching me about words, for inspiring me to study and love words, and for writing the words of fatherhood into my life through the moments and memories we’ve made together. And again, happy birthday, Dad.

Your son,

Sam

 

This post was written by Sam Jacob, Humanities Center Intern.

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