Ellie throws her dad a birthday party to celebrate his life.
‘Happy Birthday Daddy’
The childish handwriting was scrawled across the pale blue cardstock with a crudely drawn flag flying over a stick figure in what was supposed to be fatigues. Renee’s hand shook as she held the drawing and tears flooded her blue eyes. Ellie didn’t know or understand that her father would never get this card, didn’t know that her father would never come home again. Renee hadn’t managed to accept the truth that had been delivered to her just the day before and therefore hadn’t told her four year old daughter the news.
Ellie had been proud of her work when she’d handed her mother the card, skipping out the door to play in the backyard. James’ birthday was in two days, on Flag Day and he’d missed turning forty by two short weeks. Renee struggled to swallow over the lump in her throat that was intent on choking her and the tears slipped yet again down her pale cheeks while she watched through the window as Ellie played.
Renee bowed her head, her dark hair falling forward in a curtain, as she tried to rein in her sorrow. She had to be strong… she had to be there for Ellie.
When James had been deployed to Iraq, he’d promised her that it would be his last tour; that he’d retire and be done. Renee had nodded, having heard those words before, and simply kissed him softly. She’d known when she married him that the Army was his life and that she’d have to be at one with his military ‘mistress’ as she liked to tease him. He’d always been proud to serve his country and she was proud of him. Little did she know that James’ blue eyes would never smile down at her again when she’d said goodbye.
The doorbell ringing interrupted Renee’s sorrowful musings. She wiped the moisture from her cheeks and took a deep breath. Still clutching Ellie’s drawing in her hand, Renee went to the door. When she opened it, she saw her in-laws, all five of them, teary-eyed and mournful standing on the porch. She vaguely remembered Clara, James’ mother, saying that they were going to drive down from Great Falls to be with her.
Clara stepped across the threshold and immediately pulled Renee into a motherly hug, her own sorrow compelling her and Renee broke down in heartbroken sobs. Her own family was gone and James’ had welcomed and accepted her as one of their own. Clara and Renee held each other in the doorway and Renee felt the warmth of another person hugging them.
It was a long time before Renee managed to regain control of her tears. She stood for a long moment, wrapped in the arms of her surrogate parents and their other children. A delighted squeal broke them apart, all hurriedly wiping the tears from their faces. Ellie ran into the midst of the adults, her bright blue eyes shining and her golden hair bouncing in its piggy tails.
“Meema! Pappa! Why are you here?” Ellie exclaimed as James’ father, Joseph bent and scooped his granddaughter into his arms. Clara shot a questioning look at Renee and she paled further and shook her head.
“We came to visit you and your mommy, is that all right with you, Peanut?” Joseph asked as he nuzzled her soft, little cheek, having caught the unspoken communication.
“You can always come visit, Pappa,” Ellie reminded him happily as James’ brother, Don put his arm around Renee. “Mommy? Why are you so sad?”
Renee closed her eyes briefly to marshal her emotions and to gather her strength. She took another deep breath and looked at her daughter.
“I’m just missing daddy, Sweetheart,” Renee choked out.
“I made Daddy a birthday card!” Ellie said proudly. “Show em, Mommy.”
Renee handed the blue paper to her daughter who frowned.
“Mommy! You are messin’ up Daddy’s card!” Ellie scolded indignantly.
“I’m very sorry,” Renee breathed and Don gave her shoulders a squeeze. Renee looked up at her daughter cradled in Joseph’s arms and her heart broke again with the knowledge that she could no longer put off telling Ellie. Joseph was smiling with the same dimpled smile that James had had and his blue eyes shone with love.
“Please make yourselves at home, I… you know where everything is,” Renee murmured. “Sweetheart, would you take a walk with me?”
Joseph gave Renee an encouraging smile and nod while Don squeezed her shoulders again. Ellie squirmed until Joseph put her back on her feet then placed her hand in her mother’s.
Renee led Ellie into the backyard, her tiny hand still clutching the card she’d drawn for her father. They sat on the big swing in the gazebo where Renee and James had spent many evenings cuddled together.
“Sweetheart, I need to tell you something,” Renee started lamely, Ellie looked up at her mother expectantly.
Swallowing hard over her sorrow and taking yet another deep breath, Renee started. “Do you remember when Daddy told you about the big bombs that sometimes scared him at night?”
Ellie nodded solemnly, her blue eyes wide.
“Well the other night, Daddy and the men he worked with were trying to get some kids out of a building safely when one of those bombs exploded. And… and…” Renee gasped, the words catching in her throat. “And Daddy got hurt really bad. So bad that he’s gone.”
Renee felt the tears sliding down her cheeks once again and the pain in her heart intensified as she watched the emotions play across her little girl’s face as she struggled to understand what Renee had told her.
“Gone?” Ellie frowned.
“Yes, Sweetheart. He’s gone and he can’t come back to us. I…” Renee took the picture from her daughter, “I can’t send him your beautiful card because he will never be able to get it.”
“But he can’t be gone… it’s his birthday,” Ellie whimpered as the first rays of understanding dawned on her. Her little chin began to quiver and tears filled her blue eyes.
“I know it’s his birthday, but I can’t bring Daddy back,” Renee whispered. Tears spilled from Ellie’s eyes and Renee scooped the little girl into her arms. Together on the swing, mother and daughter cried, mourning the loss of the man who meant the most to them. After a long time, Ellie took the card from her mother and stared at it intently.
“We still need to give Daddy his card,” Ellie said in a tiny voice.
“But Sweetheart…” Renee began to protest, but Ellie’s look stopped her words. A fierce and defiant fire blazed in her young eyes, surprising Renee.
“They’ll do one of those things with the guns and the horn and stuff, right? Like they did for Daddy’s friend?” Ellie asked and again Renee was taken aback. She hadn’t realized that Ellie remembered the funeral that they’d attended six months earlier for a fallen soldier from James’ unit.
“Yes…” Renee said slowly when she finally found her voice. “Yes, they will… on Daddy’s birthday is when it’ll be.”
“Then I’ll give it to him then. We should have a birthday party for him.” Ellie stated with a hard note in her voice that warned Renee that Ellie was very serious about her desire to give her father a birthday party.
“Is that how you want to say…” Renee started and stumbled, “goodbye to your Daddy?”
“Yes, Mommy. We need to give him a birthday party with flags.”
Renee couldn’t bring herself to argue with her small daughter and didn’t really want to. The little girl’s idea to celebrate her father’s life touched her heart and it just felt right.
“Will you help me pick out the decorations?” Renee asked as she continued to hold Ellie, a sense of peace beginning to grow in her heart.
“Yes, Mommy. We have to make it right… for Daddy.”
The morning of June 14th dawned bright, clear and sunny. Ellie yawned and stretched against her mother. She’d begun sleeping in Renee’s bed after learning of James’ death and Renee was glad for the warmth and company. With the help of James’ family, Ellie and Renee decorated the backyard with forty balloons of red, white, and blue. They draped the gazebo rails with red, white and blue banners and placed forty American flags of varying sizes around the yard. When Ellie had deemed the yard perfect for her Daddy’s birthday, Renee helped her daughter to get ready for James’ funeral.
Renee held Ellie’s hand throughout the service, taking comfort in the tiny hand holding onto hers. They rode together with James’ family to the cemetery where flags were set up among the myriad of flowers that had been sent. Renee gasped as the bugler began playing Taps and she sobbed brokenheartedly against Joseph’s shoulder. When the first volley from the twenty one gun salute echoed through the cemetery, Renee jumped and Ellie’s hand tightened in hers. The servicemen folded the flag that had been draped over the coffin. Renee took the two peace roses she held in her hand and placed them on the coffin, wishing she could be with James. She watched as Ellie fought against her tears and stepped forward, clutching the now tattered and tear splattered blue cardstock with ‘Happy Birthday Daddy’ scrawled across it.
Renee’s heart wrenched as she watched her little girl carefully place the card on the coffin then picked Ellie up, holding her close as she cried on her mother’s shoulder. The last volley from the guns sounded and the final notes of Taps faded in the warmth of the day.
When James’ family and friends left the cemetery, they all went to the house that was decorated so festively for a birthday party. They sang Happy Birthday and Ellie and Renee blew out forty candles on patriotically decorated cake. As people began to leave, Ellie climbed into her mother’s lap and wrapped her arms around Renee’s neck.
“I think Daddy had a very good birthday.”
Word count :1678
**This is dedicated to my own father whose birthday was June 14 and who thankfully did return home from his service in the Army during World War II.