Today was my birthday. My family and friends came for dinner, Charlotte made a cake with those stupid candles you can’t blow out, and then posted a video of me trying to do it, on Facebook. Great gifts, good food, surrounded by those I love and care about. A reminder that I’m the luckiest guy on earth.
The party is over now, Char has gone to bed, and I’m alone in the kitchen. I open the envelope and pull out the card from my dad. The fifty-dollar check falls out. Below the printed message inside the card, he wrote “Happy Birthday Son! I hope this is the best one yet. Love you, Dad.”
When I left home, my dad began mailing me a fifty-dollar check every birthday. Back then, fifty dollars was a pretty good birthday present. In college, things were tight and it was enough for two pairs of jeans, or a new shirt, or something I’d wanted, but didn’t have the money for: books, music, or movies. Later, after Char and I moved in together, we were on a tight budget and that fifty-dollar check allowed us the luxury of a nice dinner out. When Alison was born, the check always helped with diapers, doctors, day care — or if I was lucky, a pair of jeans.
Dad made certain the card and check were always there, always on time and — always fifty dollars. But as I grew older, the purchasing power of that fifty-dollar check declined, and soon it only covered one of the legs on a pair of Levi’s. The important thing to Dad, however, wasn’t the amount of the gift, it was the occasion it marked, and he very carefully selected cards with just the right message inside. The excitement of getting that birthday card and the fifty-dollar check never diminished. Dad never missed a birthday — and the card with the check was never late. Once, he thought he’d mailed it, but he found it on the kitchen counter the day before my birthday. It cost him ninety-three dollars to send me that fifty-dollar check by FedEx next day delivery.
I remember one day, when I was much younger, I was at Walgreen’s trying to find a birthday card for a friend. Standing there, pulling out cards and reading through all the impersonal messages, I realized the difficulty in finding one that wasn’t stupidly sentimental or trite. I picked some silly card about getting high on your birthday, and suddenly thought of my dad picking out cards for me. I imagined him standing there, opening card after card, casting aside all the, “On Your Special Day,” and “Enjoy Your Birthday,” generic debris, until he found the right one. I could almost hear him say, “Yep, this one will do just fine,” then place the card under the flap of the envelope and walk to the register. I read every birthday card from him more carefully after that day — I realized they weren’t just cards; they were carefully selected messages.
I started saving Dad’s cards after the Walgreen’s experience. Every once in a while, I look through them; and images of my dad, at about the age he was when he sent each card, parade through my mind. Although each card is different, one thing is always the same; “Happy Birthday Son! I hope this is the best one yet. Love you, Dad,” is written inside. And although the checks were long ago cashed, I remember that all of them were the same style and had his beloved Ball State University’s mascot, Charlie, in the upper right-hand corner.
It’s almost midnight now, and my birthday is over. I look down at the card I’m holding — the last one from Dad — and read his hand-written message again. Then I pick up the fifty-dollar check that fell out — the one I never cashed — and unfold it again. I study the signature, then look in the corner and smile at Charlie Cardinal. I’ve opened this card sixteen times now, each night for the past sixteen birthdays, after everyone is asleep.
I spend a few more minutes thinking of Dad, missing him, loving him. Then I put the card and check back in the envelope and look at the date on the postmark, the date he died of a sudden heart attack, two days before my birthday, sixteen years ago.
Daniel Norman is a new fiction writer. He received his BFA from the University of Georgia. Previously, he was a senior executive and an inventor at AT&T. He is also a past member of the board of directors of the Florida Literacy Coalition.