My dad who raised me (Mike) turns 60 today, March 2nd. I asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday, and he said, “I don’t need anything. It’s just another day.” My dad has been a beacon of guidance for me throughout my life, but when it came to this moment, he couldn’t have been more wrong. For the rest of my life, my dad’s birthday will represent both the worst and best day that ever happened to me.
On the morning of March 2nd, 1993, before it was time for school, my mom and I woke my dad to breakfast in bed. It was his 34th birthday. My mom had just turned 30 about a month prior, when we found out that the baby in her belly was a boy. They named him Tyler, and our whole family was ecstatic. I was nine at this time and had been begging my parents to have a baby for years.
After we sang my dad “Happy Birthday,” I started getting ready for school while my parents, unusually, also began getting ready. My mom was in nursing school at the time and not working, and my dad had worked third shift the night before. I had assumed he’d go back to sleep. I asked my mom where they were going, and she told me that they were driving to Lake Orion (45 minutes away) to get their taxes done. For a reason that I still don’t understand, this unnerved me. I started crying and pleading with her not to go, to instead get her taxes done in our town. I remembered that my third grade teacher’s husband did people’s taxes and offered him up as a replacement resource. My mom, perplexed, did her best to assure me that it would be fine. Inconsolable, I argued with her until she took me to school.
Within an hour of arriving there, I realized that, amidst my fit, I’d left my math book at home. I went to the secretary’s office so that I could call my mom, who said she’d swing by to drop it off. When her car pulled up in the circle driveway, I walked out to get my book from her through the passenger side. I told her I loved her, she said it back with a loving smile, and then she drove away.
Not long after lunch, I saw the secretary again when she knocked on the door of my classroom. She stuck her head in and said, “Heidi, Mrs. Snyder is here for you. Bring your coat and backpack.” I didn’t know who she was referring to. Mrs. Snyder was a second grade teacher, who had never been my teacher; I’d gone to a different school altogether in second grade. It wasn’t until we got to the office that I realized she was referring to my mom’s friend and running buddy, Tracy, who had also been my daycare provider before my mom stopped working to go to school. Tracy had never picked me up from school before. I didn’t know why she was there, but I knew it wasn’t right. We left the office and wound around the corner toward the double-doors that led out to the parking lot. We pushed on the horizontal bar that unlocked the door, allowing light to creep into the dark and empty gym, which was painted with children’s book characters. Tracy said, “Mom and Mike were in an accident.”
We drove to Tracy’s house where there were daycare kids playing. Tracy subscribed to the Disney channel, and I remember watching the shows that we didn’t get at home, an attempt to distract myself from all of the questions that gripped my attention. Tracy told me she didn’t know what was happening. The hours passed, first with me wondering when my parents would be released from the hospital and come pick me up. Then came the most horrific fear that my nine year-old brain could imagine: what if my mom lost her legs or was paralyzed? What if she could no longer run or do aerobics, passions of hers that had become our family-wide activities?
At some point hours later, Tracy took me home to my house. We had to take care of the dogs and cat, and she told me I needed to pack some clothes. I went upstairs to pack a bag, and when I came back down, I found Tracy standing in our den. In her right hand, she held a crystal picture frame of my parents on their wedding day just 10 months prior. Her left hand covered her mouth. She brought the picture to me and put it in my bag. As I grabbed my toothbrush from the bathroom, the phone rang. It was Tracy’s oldest daughter calling to tell her something. She looked shaken. During the car ride back to Tracy’s house, I wondered what she knew.
When we arrived at Tracy’s home, it was quiet, dark, and still. All of the daycare kids were long gone. Tracy’s youngest daughter, who was my age, was in bed. Her oldest daughter was going to bed. I sat at the kitchen table, waiting beneath a photo of someone praying over their meal (presumably Eric Enstrom’s Grace). After some time, my Aunt Mary and Uncle Mike (my mom’s brother) pulled into the driveway. They came inside and sat down in the wooden chairs at Tracy’s kitchen table. I stood in front of them. My Uncle Mike looked at me and said, “Mom and Dad were in a bad car accident. Dad’s going to be okay, but Mom didn’t make it. Tyler didn’t make it, either.”
“Didn’t make it.”
It took a minute for those words to sink in. When I realized what they meant, I threw myself into my Aunt Mary’s arms and started crying. They told me to grab my bag, because we needed to drive all the way down to Pontiac to go see my dad in the hospital. We got into their Jeep and started the bumpy 45-minute trek. I remember sitting mostly in silence, watching cars pass on the highway, while they warned me that my dad didn’t look good.
I don’t remember ever visiting someone in the hospital prior to that day. When we got there, we made our way to the ICU, turning left into my dad’s room where my grandma sat beside him. She stood up to greet us. We walked toward the back of the room, past the privacy curtain, to where my dad lay. He was unrecognizable. His thin face was swollen to what seemed like twice its size, and his head was covered in bandages. Were it any other situation, I would have denied knowing this man. I remember him acknowledging me, and I remember telling him that I loved him, but I also remember being terrified and unsure. I wanted to curl up in his lap and cry with my dad, but this wasn’t my dad. This man was an utterly fragile stranger. Everything had changed. His jaw was broken, he had a massive head injury, his ribs were broken, and they punctured his lung and bruised his heart. He was weak, exhausted, and hurt in every comprehensible way. When my parents had been rushed to the hospital, it was my dad that doctors were most concerned about.
My grandma took us into the hallway so we could talk and let him rest. She said that his memory wasn’t good and that she had to keep reminding him what had happened. Not long before our arrival, she said she’d stepped away to get something while he was asleep. When she walked back into the room, he was wide awake and told her, “Linda was just here.” My grandma said, “No, Mike, Linda’s gone.” He said, “I know. But she just came to tell me that everything would be okay.” I clung to those words as we got back in the Jeep and made our way to my aunt and uncle’s house, where I’d spend the next several days. My aunt put me in bed with my cousin Jennifer and told me that we would return to the hospital in the morning.
For the first time in my life, I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake, tossing and turning. Finally, I got up and went to my cousin Rachel’s room thinking that perhaps a different setting would help. It didn’t. I lay awake in her canopy bed, looking out her bedroom window at the flood light that glowed above the garage. I’d occasionally doze off to sleep, only to awake in a nightmare. Having to confront my horror time and again felt worse than just lying in it consciously, vigilant about our new reality. So I lay there, waiting for the sun to rise and waiting for my cousins to wake up and discover me there. Eventually, Jennifer joined us in Rachel’s bed. They asked me how Aunt Linda was. I said the only thing I knew to say: “She didn’t make it.”
Within a few hours, we were back at the hospital, and I saw my dad in daylight. Standing next to his bed, my ears began to ring, my heart rate felt audible, and my knees turned weak. Just as I was about to faint, someone stabilized me and took me to the hospital cafeteria to get some food. Everything after this is a blur that mostly involved funeral planning. My aunt and I picked out flowers and decorative pillows — two for inside the casket (one for my mom and one for Tyler) and an identical one that my aunt gave me to keep so that I could hold something that my mom would forever hold, too. We picked out clothes for my mom, dad, and me to all wear to the funeral, not knowing if my dad would be released in time to attend it 4 days later. Meanwhile, my uncles bought us family cemetery plots and decided what would be on my mom and Tyler’s headstone. My dad was in such rough shape that he helped as much as he could, but he primarily focused on getting better.
After two days of missed funeral visitations, the hospital agreed to let my dad attend my mom’s funeral, as long as an ambulance took him there and stayed onsite. We sat together during the service, and then after everyone headed to their cars to drive to the cemetery, my dad and I walked up to the closed casket. They opened it for us so that we could see my mother and say goodbye. This is the only moment that my dad remembers from that day or even the weeks surrounding what came to be known in our family as “The Accident.”
After the services were over, my grandparents — who moved in with us for a while — took my dad back to our house to help him get settled in. Meanwhile, I went back to my aunt and uncle’s house where we gathered up my things before heading to the grocery store, where my aunt made sure that we had food, shampoo, and all of the other necessities. Appropriately stocked for the week, my aunt dropped me off at home, where remnants of our vibrant and promising life together just days earlier were scattered everywhere, amidst my dad’s new medical supplies and the dozens of funeral plants that we couldn’t give away.
After my aunt left, my dad told us that he was tired and needed to take a nap. He asked me to come upstairs with him. I followed my dad to my parents’ room, sitting on my mother’s side of the bed until he was soundly asleep, wondering if I’d ever sleep normally again. It was a jarring experience, realizing as a child that I didn’t just need my dad but that my dad needed me. I needed to be there for him. He needed to be reminded that something in our lives was still normal, that he didn’t lose everything, and that we still had each other.
I understood in this moment that my childhood innocence was gone. I understood — in the most visceral way — how much my dad meant to me and how lucky I was to have him. I would never look at life so naively again. I would always trust my gut when something felt wrong. I would always tell people I loved them before I said goodbye. And I would live every day trying to do my best, to work hard and build a life that I could be proud of — just like my parents had — knowing that any day could be my last and, if it were, I wanted to die happy and fulfilled like my mom had. As my dad continually said, “We were so happy.”
So here we are on March 2nd, 2019, and my dad is now 60. He’s remarried, has two more daughters, and we have a new family that never could have happened were it not for that March 2nd 26 years ago. Birthdays are a day to celebrate the birth of those we love, but to me, my dad’s birthday is so much more. It’s the day that he entered the world, and it’s the day that I nearly lost him. It’s the day that I lost my mother and brother, and it’s the day that made it possible for me to have my stepmom and sisters. It’s the day that taught me what it means to truly value and love someone — and let them know it. Everything about my dad, everything about his birthday, everything about how hard he worked to claw his way back to happiness, taught me what it means to live a full and purpose-filled life. Indeed, everything became okay.
I love you, Papa. Happy birthday.