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Happy Birthday, Pops.

My dad, Fred Stagnaro, and I at my cousin Elizabeth's wedding in 2008.

Me and my first hero and lifelong best friend at my cousin Elizabeth’s wedding in 2008.

Today is my dad’s 82nd birthday and I wish more than anything that he was here to celebrate the occasion.

It wouldn’t matter if we spent the day on the golf course, or had dinner at his favorite restaurant, The Silo. Maybe just a few friends over for cocktails. There would be cake, of course. Because in my dad’s eyes, no meal was complete without dessert. (Yes, even breakfast.)

I try not to count the months or years since he left. Instead, I remind myself that he’s with me every moment of every day.

Time has passed, of course. Four years and change. And I miss him no less today than I did in those first few heart wrenching moments when I realized he was gone. When I wondered how the clock could continue to register the passing of time when my world stood absolutely still.

That feeling of soul-crushing sorrow has mellowed to an ever-present dull ache. The sadness still finds its way to the top at times. Usually at the most unexpected – and often inopportune – moments. It’s all part of the healing process, I know. And I barely apologize for it anymore, mostly because I am so very grateful that these emotions are bubbling up rather than festering inside.

That knowledge is one of the ways I know that true healing has and is taken place. Another is that my memories are no longer tinged with so much loss and longing. I can take them out, one at a time, like favorite toys from a childhood toy box. I can cherish them and feel the warmth and joy of love and gratitude for the amazing relationship I had with my dad. Because I am truly, truly blessed to have had him as one of my best friends.

Funny, I never thought to call him that before. But he was. He was also my hero, my coach, my mentor, my conscience, and my consigliere. Both my biggest critic and my biggest fan. And the one person in the world I ever worried about letting down. The person I always wanted to prove myself to. Am still trying to prove myself to, if I’m completely honest.

That sounds silly, I know. But my dad was larger than life in so many ways. And he left very big shoes to fill.

I realized not long ago that it isn’t only grief I’ve been carting. There’s a pocket of guilt deep inside me.

I moved home, you know. So I was there with my parents for the three years my father battled cancer. I’ve always said I had no regrets about that. But I do. Because while I was there physically, living day to day with my parents through all of it…Well, I just wasn’t always there mentally. Far too often I retreated, either upstairs or to another world entirely. One where sickness hadn’t found its way inside our family.

Could I have researched more? Fought more? Advocated for his care more? Yes, I probably could have. But what I really wish I’d done is spent more time holding his hand. Because it was only in his last month with us that I realized how he himself craved the touch of others after he had spent so long withdrawing from it. That withdrawal was his way of making it easier on us, so we didn’t know how much pain he was really in.

As I sit here, fresh tears spill down my cheeks. There are more to shed, I know. Because cancer leaves scars on everyone, not just those who battle it first hand. Someday, I’ll be ready to let that pain see the light of day. But not today.

Because today is your day, Dad. And I’d give anything to split a piece of chocolate cake with you. Nothing fancy. One of those frozen Pepperidge Farm cakes will do. Mom probably has one in the freezer waiting.

There’d be a side of Breyers ice cream, too. Natural vanilla, of course. Or Neapolitan in a pinch.

After all, that’s the standard Stagnaro birthday celebration.

See, look at me. Sitting here with a smile on my face, thinking of all the birthdays we’ve celebrated like that over the years.

How very grateful I am for all of those memories. And for you, Dad. With me every day, in my heart and thoughts. And in my near-constant cravings for chocolate cake.

Happy Birthday in heaven, Pops.

Love you & miss you more than I could ever say.

xo

M