No Piece of Cake
Coral Kelly Ragognetti
I want to buy a cake. No, I want to make one for him. I cannot remember if he preferred chocolate or vanilla, but it’s possible I inherited the vanilla bean gene from him. If he had it his way, his birthday "cake" would be made of ground turkey, iced with ketchup, and sprinkled with crushed painkillers. And to wash it all down, he´d choose a Coors Light. I always had better choices in mind for him.
My husband may wonder why I have decided to bake a cake on a random Thursday evening, but as long as chocolate is involved, there shouldn’t be many questions. I don´t expect him to remember that it´s my dad´s 49th birthday. They never met. My better half is loving, supportive, but admittedly poor when it comes to remembering birthdays, anyhow. I am not in the mood to explain why I want to bake a cake for someone who is three-thousand miles away, so I will just say I am having a bout of monthly menstrual cravings. The inquisition usually ends there. Once the intense mixed emotion of this day wanes, I´ll remind him of its significance and he´ll hold me closely as I fight back tears.
As I sit in my car waiting for an appointment, I picture the baking aisle at the grocery store with the endless combinations of boxed cake mixes and frostings. What would Dad like best: German chocolate, French vanilla, lemon, cream cheese, angel´s food, or devil´s food? I haven’t the slightest idea. I can call my grandmother and ask her about his favorite flavors, but I know today is not a good day. The more I review the options in my head — the same goodies I´ve perused each time my sweet tooth gains control — the more I realize how little I know about the intricacies of my father.
I don´t know his favorite cake, color, musician, movie, surfboard brand or book. He was not a high school graduate and I am not sure if he ever read an entire book. He did, however, share the lore of Island of the Blue Dolphins, a tale set on an island, just off the coast of our hometown, Port Hueneme. I am tempted to believe that someone offered the Cliffs Notes version to him, and he carried along as though he read it himself. He did, however, love ice cream and surfing, and, as I mentioned previously, ketchup, ground turkey, alcohol, and controlled and illegal substances. He was also a dreamer.
When I think of birthdays, I often reflect on the prose emblazoned on the bottle of Philosophy Purity facial cleanser in my shower. It discusses how we are born pure and innocent, without malice, and that daily cleansing is a way to maintain, or even bring back, a sense of virginal innocence. I think that the notion is a bit nonsensical and idealistic, yet it sticks with me and I reread it on a daily basis.
Is my father´s birthday a celebration of former innocence and purity? Was he able to wash away the alcoholism, the drug addictions, the affairs, or the cancer with an over-priced bottle? Perhaps he believed so, but the bottle he chose was Patron Silver from a liquor store, not Purity from Sephora.
Is a birthday a fresh start at a new year? Or is it just a step closer to a social security check as one continues the same habits as an older man or woman? I´m not so sure. Either way, we believe it is a time to celebrate, bear gifts and extinguish candles to a copyrighted tune that cannot be sung in restaurants. And sometimes we punch, for good luck, of course.
Does it really matter if I don´t get his favorite cake? It´s the thought that counts, right? And some have said that if you are unsure about a gift, to buy something you like just in case the recipient doesn´t like it. I will just choose white cake mix and chocolate frosting — my favorite combination — if I can muster the courage to truly acknowledge this day. Should I buy candles also? They come in packs of twelve and twenty-four, meaning I´ll need to buy an extra package for the forty-ninth candle. He´s not here to blow them out anyway and that special birthday wish is now a moot point. No candles then.
I actually don´t remember celebrating any of his previous birthdays, not even one. After my parents´ divorce in 1990, I only spent summers with him and his birthday did not fall during those months. In fact, I´m not sure I committed his birth date to memory until about seven years ago. It was then that I began to see him as a real person and not just as a misguided, lackadaisical, selfish father.
My dad’s cancer diagnosis was revealed to the family the day of my grandfather´s viewing in early November of 2004. He felt it best to share the untimely news privately with the priest before the family gathered in the living room to review the memorial service for the following day. My dad wanted to make sure that his mother, a devout Catholic, had the support she needed when she was blindly hit with the impending loss of her son just days after losing her husband. As the priest sat in my grandpa’s recliner, he spoke slowly, deeply and emotionally.
Dolores, tomorrow you will bury your husband. Jim lived a great life. Your youngest son, Shawn, however, has been diagnosed with a rare, terminal cancer. He, too, will be buried—before you. The plot you have reserved for yourself, next to your late husband, will become the final resting place of your youngest son in about twenty months.
Those were not his words, as he was a priest, not a medium or psychic, but that is what I heard. The painful, somber tone in the living room that afternoon was unmistakable. We knew what had not been spoken, or at least I did.
My father´s diagnosis took place just months after he was hospitalized in a burn unit at UCLA for several weeks after an attempt to rescue a broken-down car on the side of the road. As my father tinkered under the hood with a wrench, valves and hoses, the driver turned the key in the ignition and the engine exploded in my father´s face. Good Samaritan deeds can sometimes backfire. Despite his one-hundred-percent-Irish heritage, good luck was not a gift with which he was familiar.
I cannot bake a cake for him today. I´m filled with anguish and I am ashamed regarding the legacy I have conveyed to others and, hence, forced onto him. My father was not a horrible person, yet I almost always describe him as though he is a patient in a rehabilitation center. I rattle off a list of his problems, with no emotion or signs of familial attachment, and close with, "and he died of cancer at the age of forty-three, when I was twenty-three."
The response is a typical, "Wow, he was young. I´m sorry," but it usually ends there. I don´t give others the opportunity to know him beyond his faults, as the full, dynamic person that he was. I have, therefore, denied him the true compassion and sadness that most people would exhibit upon discovering the loss of a man in his early forties and the father of two girls embarking upon adulthood. A cake is not only a poor choice, but it is a misrepresentation of his life and our relationship.
A batch of batter, baked, frosted, decorated, and pierced with candles is the antithesis of how I portray and envision my father. There was no sickeningly sweet exchange of sentiments, no white picket fence, and no father-daughter school dances. There was not a time I was called "princess" or "Daddy´s little girl." There was rarely a time I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Each year as I reflect, I realize how my point of view of my father is biased, unfair and selfish. I accused him, and often still do, of being self-involved, but I never gave him the opportunity to prove otherwise to me. When he "did good," I convinced myself there were ulterior motives. I didn´t want to forgive him. I had made up my mind. And now, it is too late to sit down with him and apologize. The quest to learn more about my father has begun, fueled by the encouragement of dear friends and the convenience of Facebook. I am uncertain as to the questions I should—or should not—ask, and how I will feel as I travel down this path of discovery.
I often thought, and even said aloud, that if he were gone, things would be easier; they would be better. I was sadly mistaken. Things are more complicated now than they were when he was alive, and the emotional complexity continues to build as the years pass. Yet, I am still naïve enough to believe that baking a cake will fool me, and maybe others, into believing that he and I had something special. Maybe we did, but I never allowed it to flourish, and a store-bought cake surely won’t germinate a dormant seedling.
It has been five years, three months and fifteen days since my father passed away and today is his birthday. Just like in years before, this year there will be no cake. It´s just not that easy.