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  • Growing up, birthdays were about taking in a treat to share at school (always, always chocolate cupcakes with heart-shaped cinnamon red hots on top; the proximity to Valentine's Day was integral to this). They were about an extra special drawing or sticker from my mom on my paper lunch bag. And they were absolutely about getting to choose the dinner menu, from start to finish, a privilege one looked forward to all year, every year in a family of 8.

    It's hard to explain, but there was this incredible feeling of, almost, power that came with being handed my mom's cherished little notebook and told to write the grocery list for the night. Dessert was included in this decision, and as the most important part of the meal, the cake was simply never up for debate. Every year, it had to be chocolate. Apparently, this strong personal preference was sensed even before I could make the decision for myself. Or, perhaps it found its roots in this first birthday celebration.

    Whatever the case may have been in that attachment, with the cake determined, all other decisions were a little more fluid. From many years, I have memories of surveying my siblings in the days leading up to my birthday, weighing the endless possibilities in an effort to find what might make everyone happiest at dinner that night. For me, there was an undeniable sense of responsibility to develop only the best birthday menu that came with the territory of getting to make such a big decision.

    And really, that was because more than all of these small things, birthdays were about celebrating together, as a family. If ever there were a commitment someone had on a birthday that prevented them from being home for dinner, without any question, the celebration would be moved forward or back to suit the situation. The dinner table would be set beautifully (a nightly chore of mine from which I was excused on this special occasion), and every place would be occupied. In this, there was a joy that I could never describe in words.

    You can see a piece of it in this photo, one of my favorites of all photos, and unfortunately one of the only ones I have of the two of us together. Undoubtedly, my mom is on the other side of the camera, doing an excellent job keeping my attention, and I can only imagine my three older siblings are there celebrating with me. And then there is my dad, just holding me, perfectly aware that the camera is there, but hardly concerned with paying it any attention. His look of complete love and absorption in my happiness is unmistakable. His hand wrapped tightly around my little body, he's there to celebrate with me, to celebrate through me.

    It is in this photo that I find embodied the perfect representation of the endlessly giving, immeasurably loving figure my dad was to me, to my mother, and to all of my siblings, growing up. He taught me first what it means to truly love someone, to give yourself entirely to someone in that love. He taught me what it means to be love. And even now, in this sixth birthday spent without him, he continues to teach me of the depth and strength of that love.

    Surely, there is a painful, unavoidable sense of absence that wells up within me each 5th of February that he is not here. On a day so much about being together with my family, it is difficult to feel so strongly that the nature of that togetherness so special in years past cannot be the same again.

    Yet, there is also a sense of quiet joy, of celebration much different than anything involving cake or presents.

    There is the celebration of the 17 years of life that I did have with this wonderful person. Of the incomparable fortune I inherited simply in my birth to a father and mother more loving than I could ever ask for amidst equally loving and beautiful siblings. Here, too, is a celebration of the years that have passed since, years I once thought impossible to face, and of the endless love and support I still find in my family today, even as we are separated by incredible physical distances. Again and again, I am reminded of how much of my father each of us still carries within us. How much he is still here, as an important figure in my life, birthday after birthday, celebrating with me.

    There is a celebration in the hope of this day. Hope that with time, wherever life might take me, I will have the opportunity to pass along this same sense of love and completeness I felt on birthdays of years past to those with whom I grow closest.

    Through any pangs of sadness that come in remembering the past, there is equally immense joy . In all of this, today is a happy day. I hope that yours is as well.
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