BellaOnline Literary Review
Kooki Kool 2 by Mark Berkery

Non Fiction

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.

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Reader Feedback:
Coral- your story brought tears to my eyes. Not because it is a raw and sad story, because it is, but because it hits so close to my own story with my father. He died as well, 3 weeks after my graduation at LC, and I am just now truly trying to understand why and how I move on with my life. My father didn't die from terminal cancer, but he decided to take his own life, without a "see ya later" or any clue he was going to leave this world. For a long time, over four years now, I have carried this around with me. I explain to very few the exact cause of his death because even saying your father is deceased is hard enough. You get the,  "I'm sorry, that is so tragic. He was only 46?", response, which you are already clearly aware of. And really, how do you explain your father committed suicide? It's kind of a hard subject to broach, even with the most sanest of people. But somewhat like you, for the longest time, I seem to only remember who my father wasn't, not who he WAS. I remember that he was an alcoholic, addicted to any sort of medication he could find, womanizer and a missing father. I don't say that I know he loved me in his own way, that he was extremely intelligent, loved soccer, had the most infectious laugh you've ever heard or that he gave the best hugs I've ever felt.

  Sometimes I go through periods where I hate my dad almost as much as I love him. He has missed so much of my life and I have missed him terribly.  Maybe if he had made better decisions or better life choices, he would still be here. But I have to stop thinking that way.....because he is gone and there is no changing that, no matter how much I wish it weren't true. I have to start remembering the good things because that is what helps you heal and move on. I may never forget what my father put me through, but I have to learn to forgive him. Not only for his benefit, but for my well being. It is and will definitely be a hard road, but it is one I must complete. 

Thank you for sharing your story. It is comforting to know others that have gone through and are still going through similar life struggles. It comforts me that individuals can go through all of this and still turn out to be amazing men and women. It gives me hope.....

I wanted to thank you for sharing your heart in this story. There are so many of us that can relate to having a distant or absent father. It is so hard for me to express my thoughts as clearly as you did, but maybe sometime we can talk more about our dads. Mine is still alive, but only physically! He stopped living a long time ago. Now he just exists! That makes me so sad! LOL

Winter Solstice 2011 Table of Contents