January 23rd is always a day of celebration in my family. It is not only the day that my wife entered this world but also the day my father did – many years earlier. On some January 23rds, however, the feelings of joy are tempered by feelings of loss – the conspicuous absence of a father’s birthday party and a father’s age that no longer increases by one every year. He would have turned 70 this January 23rd and I, nearing 36 years of age, would have known him for more than half his life and all of mine. Instead I knew him for 11 years before he died, nearly 1/4 of his life and a little more than 1/3 now of mine.
Perhaps due to the milestone birthday or perhaps because we spent January 23rd this year at a funeral, this was one of those January 23rds that carried more mixed emotions.
Katie and I spent the end of this week in South Bend, Indiana, where her father grew up, celebrating the long life of Katie’s recently departed grandmother. Thursday we flew into Chicago, where we met up with the rest of Katie’s immediate family, and carpooled down to South Bend. The weather was cold, but not nearly as bad as it could have been in this part of the country this time of the year. Because Katie’s grandfather had been a professor at the University of Notre Dame, the funeral service and burial would take place on campus. As such, we stayed in a hotel near campus for easy access.
One thing was immediately evident in South Bend: this was a Notre Dame town. Fighting Irish logos were everywhere: on buildings, on jackets, on cars . . . everywhere. Even our hotel was decked out with pictures of Notre Dame sports legends. This was fine by by me as it included many life size likenesses of Joe Montana, my favorite QB of all time. Seriously, though, I thought Chapel Hill was a UNC town or Austin a UT town, but they don’t come even close to the single-team mentality of South Bend.
Friday we spent much of the day on the Notre Dame campus, where I had never been before. If I had had my druthers, my first trip to Notre Dame would have been for a football game, not for a funeral, but sometimes life has other plans. Katie’s father, Chris, was an excellent tour guide on the campus, having spent much of his youth there. If the weather had been nicer I might have taken more time to walk around and explore, but we still got plenty of its flavor from inside the heated car.
The funeral mass was held in Notre Dame’s basilica, which . . . is . . . BEAUTIFUL! I have been to some of the most spectacular churches in the world and this is definitely one of my new favorites. The deep blue ceilings with starry motifs were really quite beautiful and it struck a good balance between impressive and intimate – a nice combination for ushering someone into the next world.
After the burial, Katie’s family was kind enough to indulge me in a brief stop at the Grotto. I had heard of the Grotto when Rice football played at Notre Dame last year and I saw this story about a Rice football player seeking it out after the game. It’s a quiet little enclave just below the basilica with candles and prayer benches. Just as the Rice football player had sought it out, it now turned out to be exactly what I was seeking as well on this day of mourning.
I lit a candle for Dad and spent a little time on the prayer bench (which would have made my Nonna happy!) wishing him a happy birthday, letting him know that we still miss him, and encouraging him to seek out the recently arrived grandmother of another January 23rd baby who now brings me so much joy. It was a very nice moment that was really facilitated by the quiet, spiritual nature of the Grotto. A great deal about Notre Dame’s campus impressed me: the basilica, the golden dome, the football stadium . . . but the Grotto was my favorite.
At the wake, most of Chris’s siblings and extended family joined him in celebrating Katie’s grandmother’s life. They told stories for hours on end. Some stories evoked laughter, some evoked tears, many evoked both, but all were helpful for the grieving process.
Later that night we went out for Katie’s birthday – not necessarily the one we would have planned, but a good one all the same. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter which kind of cake you eat or which presents you get; being with those you love and who love you is the best gift of all. And that, of course, is a lesson that transcends birthdays and is even relevant to funerals:
“… The ones that love us never really leave us. And you can always find them in here [heart].”
– Sirius Black, the Harry Potter series
My father continues to live on in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he touched. This includes several friends from his youth who continue to keep his memory alive by sharing stories about him with me, much like the stories that Chris’s family shared about their mother.
On this January 23rd I am thankful for so many things: the 11 years I did have with Dad, the friends and family who help me continue to get to know him through their stories, Katie’s family for unwittingly helping me work through my grief even as they were mourning their own loss, Notre Dame for having just the right place that I needed when I needed it, and most of all for Katie – we’ve celebrated 13 birthdays together now and I hope to celebrate many, many more. January 23rd is indeed a day of celebration!