By Kelly Burch
My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light.
My daughter’s first birthday—my father’s 52nd—was celebrated in the psych ward. There was no candle, and a nurse held the knife used to cut the cake. I had to call and plead in order for the baby to be allowed to visit my father, speaking first with a nurse and then with the unit manager. Normally, children aren’t allowed beyond the locked doors that mark the start of the psychiatric wing.
“Please,” I begged. “It’s their birthday. Both of them.”
My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. I couldn’t celebrate the joy of her first year without thinking about the deep sorrow that year had held for my father. I couldn’t bear to celebrate another melancholy birthday with my dad, or find hope for his future, without the healing balm of my baby’s smile. After all, without the baby, we may all be forced to confront the lunacy of singing “Happy Birthday” to a man currently hospitalized for depression.
* * *
The morning that my daughter was born, I awoke in the hospital with the OB-GYN by my bedside.
“The induction hasn’t taken,” he said. “But your blood pressure has stabilized. We’ve consulted with Boston, and they said we can send you home, or we can try Pitocin. We’ll let you decide.”
Frustrated but still hoping for a somewhat natural delivery, I waddled out of the hospital without a baby.
“Sorry Dad, not today,” I said as I called to wish him a happy birthday. Even through my own exhaustion I could hear the disappointment in his voice.
But on the drive home, I began feeling the rhythmic tightening in my stomach that had failed to happen during my three days in the hospital. My water broke right around the time I was supposed to be going to my dad’s birthday gathering.
“Going back to the hospital. Don’t tell anyone at the party,” I texted my mom. We had already had one false alarm, and there was no need for everyone to come running.
But a first-time grandmother can’t control herself, and the cake and ice cream were left abandoned as my siblings and parents rushed from the cook-out. After holding out all weekend, my daughter came so quickly that I didn’t even know my family had arrived, waiting just on the other side of the locked doors that separated the maternity ward from the rest of the hospital.
When my family came in to meet the baby, my father was the last through the door, his hulking frame looking timid and unsure.
“Happy Birthday,” I said.
As I watched him cradle his first grandchild, I hoped that the baby would make a difference. I wondered if a 7-pound infant was the key that could break into the icy depression that had held my father captive for eight years, correcting his chemical imbalance and bringing him back to me.
At the same time, even in my postpartum haze, I knew not to expect a miracle. Just weeks before giving birth, I was downstairs, in the hospital’s Emergency Room with my dad. As I swayed my ever-widening hips in an attempt to soothe my aching back, I listened as the nurse asked my father, “Do you take drugs?” and “Are you thinking about hurting yourself or others?”
Hospitalizations were something I had been through many times with my father’s bipolar disorder. But at eight months pregnant, this felt different. As I helped him through the E.R., hoping that he would be deemed sick enough to warrant one of the few beds reserved for psychiatric patients, I felt completely drained. That night I curled myself around my belly, wondering how the baby inside would remember my dad.
Long before I had children, I mourned that they would never meet the boisterous, gregarious man who raised me. They wouldn’t know the man who ran for mayor on a whim; the man who always had the next big idea, and was ready to shout it from the rooftops; the man who was apt to scoop up his nieces and nephews, tossing them too high into the air until they were consumed by laughter and their parents exchanged nervous glances.
That man had been snatched away from me by mental illness. I loved the sullen, subdued person left in his place, but I was heartbroken that my kids would not know the same version of my father who helped me discover creativity, and taught me to buck the norm. The poet and author who gave me my greatest joy—writing.
But as I looked at my father holding the baby on the day she was born, I had hope. I saw genuine joy radiating from him for the first time in nearly a decade. My daughter, swaddled loosely in the hospital blanket, nuzzled into my father’s bright coral shirt, a garment too cheery for the man who was wearing it. The massive man with paunchy cheeks, who was clean-shaven and showered only because he knew his family was visiting for his birthday, looked down at the baby with awe.
These two souls were connected, entering the world on the very same day, half a century apart. They were linked through me, but also independent of me, with a relationship I would never be fully privy to.
The year that I was expecting, I celebrated my birthday at 38 weeks pregnant. “Maybe she’ll be your birthday present!” people would say. Although I smiled, I hoped the baby would leave that day for me.
However, when I thought about her sharing my dad’s birthday, two weeks after mine, it just seemed right. Through the foggy years of his depression, I visited him on his birthday and tried to make my rendition of “Happy Birthday” sound as genuine as I could. But it seemed hollow and insincere to sing of happiness to a person who couldn’t find any joy at all.
For years, I repeated the ritual and the saying, but I knew he wouldn’t have a happy birthday, and wasn’t likely to have many happy days in the coming year.
But then, that day became theirs.
“I was hoping she would come on my birthday,” he had said when he met the baby.
He hadn’t expressed hope in the longest time.
Author’s Note: My daughter is nearly two now. After being hospitalized on her first birthday, my father began doing better. He is currently on his longest stretch without a hospitalization in nearly a decade.
Kelly Burch is a freelance writer and editor living in New Hampshire. She shares stories about mental health, mothering, and anything else that catches her interest. Connect with Kelly on Facebook, or via her website to read more of her work.