My Dad's Birthday
Today is my late father's birthday. He would have turned 74 this year. My father always had my back, from when I was born until the day he died, and he always said that having kids was the best decision he ever made.
It's the first in a series of grief anniversaries that honestly destroyed me last year: My dad's birthday is followed just a few weeks later by the anniversary of his death, my mother's birthday is in April, my birthday is in May (which has been anything but a happy occasion since my father died), Mother's Day is in May, and Father's Day is in June. The first half of the year, especially, felt like a roller coaster of emotion in 2020 and 2021…so I've been bracing myself for February 23rd— the first domino.
My grief for my father feels different than it did last year, though. The loss feels more secure, more a part of me. I know that it's true that my father is dead. I can accept that I haven't hugged him in a very long time. I feel him as a part of me now, and I still talk to him regularly, hoping that he’s listening…even though I know he's not here. That's a change since last year, when it felt strange to not have him around. Now it's just normal. So, even though my father's birthday is still a sad day for me, it's not as gut-wrenchingly sad as it was last year. That's grief in-progress. I'll take it!
What's also different is now that I'm going through my divorce, I've been giving old friends and new friends (all of you!) a window into my grief that was previously reserved for my ex. I recognize that I need support during these extra griefy days, and so I'm spending time with people I care about and who care about me. And for the past few days and for the next few weeks, that means they're hearing a lot about my dad.
Today, I want leave you with something I've not shared publicly before: some of the eulogy I delivered at my father's memorial service a year ago— because of COVID, we couldn't have a "real" funeral for him in 2020, so we did one on Zoom for the one-year anniversary of his death. I captured my love for my father as best I could, then. And it's been helpful for me to revisit those words today. (I’ve made some edits here and there for clarity and relevance.)
Good afternoon, and thank you all for joining together in this space. I’m Becki Feinglos Planchard, Mark’s daughter.
In an email about today's service, one of my father's friends wrote to me, “So hard to believe it's been a year. It feels like both a century and yesterday at the same time.” His statement resonated with me so strongly that I've been repeating it for days. A year ago today I lost my father. My everything. Or was it a hundred years ago, before six feet and masks? I can close my eyes and still see him so clearly. When I dream, we spend time together. When I'm down, I talk to him and I can hear his voice, his laugh. So it must've just been yesterday that we lost him.
In this century-long year that somehow feels like it was only 24 hours ago, I've organized a lot of my father's and my mother's family records— photos, newspaper articles, papers, diaries…I found the eulogy my dad gave at his own mother's funeral when she passed away in 2007. Reading his words took me back to that day. He opened with, “You can most easily measure the size of a tree when it's down.” He was conveying that you can better see the magnitude of someone's impact when we've lost them— when we can get some perspective outside of our own narrow experience with them.
Since March 14th, 2020, I've had the privilege of seeing my father from new perspectives wholly outside my own experience as his daughter. I've read back and forth letters he sent to my mom and her late sister when he was 18 years-old. He meticulously documented the progress of growing out his sideburns, and he showed the same twinkles of humor in discussing weird things he wanted to eat when he got back to Montreal.
I've heard physicians at Duke pay tribute to my dad in front of the endocrine fellows and staff, where they spoke to his care for those he taught as a professor of medicine. I've gotten texts and notes from his patients in the mail and through social media praising his care for them over the course of decades— how he saved their lives. I've read the Herald Sun and international articles about the first major study he got recognition for.
I read the speech he gave when he won the Pinch Medal for his mineral collecting.
I've looked at SO many pictures of my dad and my mom when they first met as teenagers at McGill University, when they first fell in love and soon got married in their early 20s. I looked at pictures when they were my age and thought about, really better understanding, how long they'd known each other for when they decided to have kids in their late thirties and early forties. And I looked at painful pictures and read painful letters that showed how heartbreaking it was for their relationship to change as my mom's brain cancer made its ugly march for nearly a decade.
Today, with him gone, I actually feel like I know my dad better than I did while he was with me. And that's saying a lot: At the time of his death, he was my best friend and closest confidant. I can't think of anything I wouldn't have and didn't talk to him about. He was the person I called when I was feeling down or when I was feeling proud— either way, I wanted to talk to my daddy. I like to think that he thought of me similarly. My dad and I just understood each other. We spoke every day.
And it wasn't always like that— for many years, even as a child, I knew how unhappy, how exhausted my father was with a sick and dying partner while trying to raise two young children and while trying to make an impact on the world with his career. When we lost my mom, when she was finally at peace after such a brutally long decline, my father was at peace too, and our family felt more stable and more closely connected.
For his 70th birthday, I got to tell my dad and 50 of his closest friends and family exactly how I felt about him in a speech. And at my wedding, I heard from my dad exactly how he felt about me. He told me every time we talked on the phone— and he ALWAYS answered when my brother or I called— that he loved us. He will forever be the model for me for how I will put my children first when I have them. He showed me that parenting doesn't ever stop, even when your children are grown. I knew I could call him for anything, and he'd never judge me for it.
I'm so very grateful that I moved back to Durham in 2018 and got to spend so much time with my dad in person at Duke games and eating occasions and for holidays and just popping in the house to say hi. On the Saturday that he died, that morning he and I spoke on the phone as we did so often, and we chatted about how eager and honored I was to be going in to work on our state COVID response. He told me how cool that was. He said I love you, even as he had some trouble breathing that morning— and I could hear it. I know not every parent-child relationship is so very loving, and I am grateful that ours was.
The thing that I am saddest about is that I'll never get to see him as a grandfather to the children that I will have one of these days. Based on how he treated my dogs, I think he would've spoiled his grandchildren rotten. I'll tell my children about who their grandpa and grandma were, and how lucky they should feel to have any of their genetic code. Maybe the mineral-collecting gene skips a generation.
I have one more thing to share about my daddy, although I could talk about him all day.
At my mother's funeral in 2002, when it was my father's turn to speak, he brought me and my brother, 13 and 15, to go up with him. The three of us stood together as a family while he delivered his eulogy for my mother, his wife of thirty years. I remember that he said, "Sue did not lose her battle with brain cancer. She retired undefeated."
That phrase has been top of mind for me as I think about my father's death. He never stopped working. He never stopped collecting. He never stopped loving. He was joyful until the end. He was brave. He was a fighter. My father did not lose any battles— ever. He retired undefeated.
I love you, Daddy. Thank you all for joining today.
I’ve read through the eulogy a handful of times over the past year on some very dark days, but today I am the strongest I’ve felt reading it. I’m able this year to use it to re-center around the love he gave me and the rest of the world. I actually feel better reading it...I remember that he still has my back, even though he’s not here. And that’s a new feeling in my grief.