I was one of those kids who always loved her birthday. Even though it was at the end of the month, as soon as the first rolled around, I started counting down the days. I couldn’t wait for my party or my trip or my cake or whatever it was we were planning to do that year.
There was something extra special about my birthday: I shared it with my stepdad. He was my daddy – the guy who tucked me in at night and told me silly stories right before I fell asleep.
I felt like the shared birthday represented a special connection. I took it as a sign that he was meant to be a part of my life. I loved being able to share something with him that no one else could.
The next best thing about sharing my birthday was that we got two birthday cakes. What kid doesn’t want two cakes? For my fourth birthday, we had matching panda bear cakes. His was big and mine was small – the daddy cake and the baby cake, as I called them. Somehow, that birthday proved to me that he was my dad even if we didn’t share a blood relation.
On my eighteenth birthday, we celebrated the day together like every year. This time, there was no party. He was recovering from surgery, and I was home from college. My mom baked two cakes as usual.
It was a simple day of eating cake and lounging around the house. We gave Dad our presents, and they gave me mine. I have a few pictures from that day stashed away somewhere.
What I didn’t know was it would be the last birthday I would share with him.
By the next spring, the surgery he had for melanoma caused an infection that spread cancer to his brain. That brain tumor caused an aneurism that took him away from us before he was actually gone. Less than eight months after our birthday, I said goodbye to him forever.
I wish I had taken the time to tell him just how much sharing that birthday meant to me.
When I look back on my birthdays, I remember the matching panda bear cakes and how our family smooshed our names together as they sang Happy Birthday. I remember the pride I felt telling people that I knew someone else with my birthday because he was my dad.
When I think of him, I remember the bedtime stories he told my sister and me. I remember the music he played on his acoustic guitar that now sits in my closet. I remember scrunching my nose in disgust as he spread mustard on his grilled cheese sandwiches. I remember watching in awe as he worked in his shop building something from nothing.
He taught me to ride a bike without training wheels and picked me up after I crashed. He built an extra room onto our trailer when I couldn’t stand to share a room with my little sister for one more minute. I remember how much I missed him when he left for a three-month mission trip to Kenya. And I remember how hard I cried when I accidentally recorded over his voice in my Talk Back Dear Diary.
I remember the man who didn’t have to raise me as his own but did. I remember the man I lost and how the loss wouldn’t be so great if I hadn’t gained so much from knowing him.
And I will always remember those matching panda bear cakes because that birthday was something just for us.
My birthday is a constant reminder that blood relation does not make a family. People choose to be a part of our lives and choose how they will treat us. My stepdad could have chosen to shrug off my upbringing as not his responsibility. He could have introduced me to his friends as his stepdaughter. But he didn’t. He was there every day for the hugs and movie nights and even for the tantrums and groundings. He worked every day to support not just one daughter, but two.
He was my father, and I was his daughter.
Even though my birthday is now a bittersweet day, it proved to me that birth doesn’t make a parent. Love and panda bear cakes do.