Just after my birthday, at the end of August… my ol’man would start talking about his birthday coming up.
He was born December 10, 1951,coming a couple of months premature.
In 1951, a couple months premature was usually a death sentence.
The scene would have made that death sentence even more likely.
It was in a long gone, old tenement-looking building behind City Hall, Steven Patrick Cichon was delivered in a 4th floor apartment kitchen during a raging snow storm.
This was the fifth of eleven babies for Grandma Cichon. She put her newborn preemie in the oven to keep him warm until an ambulance could take him the few blocks up Niagara Street to Columbus Hospital.
Nurses quickly christened him right on the spot— not expecting the little oven-warmed human to make it, but the fight was the first of many low-percentage fights he’d win.
Starting with those first few moments, the path laid out for my ol’man was never smooth. He was angry and cranky a lot— but if you could work a conversation into something about his birthday— his favorite day of the year— it was almost always an instant transport back to happier and carefree times.
Once the Fair was over, and my birthday passed, and we were heading back to school, Dad would start reminding us that his birthday was coming up— and that he’d want a BIG PRESENT… those words said with his arms outstretched and his eyes opened wide.
By November, he’d be getting into specifics. Occasionally, he actually needed something, which was great. Otherwise, fraught with danger and anxiety, we’d have to come up with something on our own.
Despite what you might think about someone in your life, rest assured, that my mean, crazy, loving, tender, anti-bullshit, anti-things ol’man was indeed, the most difficult person ever for whom to buy a present.
That is… Until I turned 21.
The ol’man spent the last decade or so of his life barely ambulatory. He was a diabetic, and went through several unsuccessful surgeries to save his foot; the there were several surgeries to remove his leg right below the knee.
His body and his spirits were greatly weakened by all the surgeries, and laying in hospital beds, and never really getting the hang of the prosthetic leg that he only rarely even tried on.
He would have disagreed violently with the idea— but for the last ten years or so of his life, Dad was wheelchair-bound.
He wasn’t a heavy drinker, but c’mon— the guy owned a tavern at point. He liked the occasional, or slightly-more than occasional whiskey.
Never straight, though, that whiskey— he’d mix it with just about anything. Iced tea, Diet 7-up, Diet Ginger Ale. His tastes changed often, but I think Ginger Ale was his favorite.
Even though he’d eat three doughnuts with impunity, he always made sure he had diet pop because of his diabetes.
At his last birthday dinner at his favorite restaurant— a sports bar, really— he tried to order a whiskey and diet ginger ale, but alas, like any other bar/restaurant in America, they didn’t have diet ginger ale.
He ordered something else, and when the waitress went away, he whispered to us, talking out of the side of his mouth, “No diet ginger ale? In a fancy place like this?!?”
“In a fancy place like this” is one of the few PG-rated lines from my dad I repeat often and with growing appreciation.
At home, it was whiskey and diet ginger ale— so long as he had the whiskey.
Buying dad a bottle was great. He’d take a quick peek in the gift bag and then put it right back before quietly rolling right down to his office, and once again quietly opening that drawer to slip the booze in the drawer so my mom wouldn’t know. (Yeah, right.)
Anyway, he couldn’t drive anymore and couldn’t make it to the liquor store himself anymore to get himself a little booze.
He was reliant on other people to bring him a taste every once in a while.
And in what I now look at as my last great gift to my father, I was his hook up.”Give me a big bottle of the cheap stuff, instead of that little bottle (of the good stuff),” he’d start whispering to me when the leaves started to change.
From everyone else, I’d get grief for bringing him a little ‘Old Grandad,’ ‘Kesslers,’ ‘Philadelphia,’ or ‘Old Crow,’ because even a little too much would send his blood sugar out of whack. But it was his last joy in life, and I couldn’t deny him.
He be mildly disappointed when I’d get him the little bottle… but my hope was with that he’d only have one drink at a time to try to stretch it out a little more. That usually worked.
Father’s Day, birthday, Christmas. Dad knew what was coming from me, and part of the gift was giving him reason to devise some sort of ruse to make sure my mother “didn’t know” he’d just gotten some booze.
As he was executing said ruse, he’d quietly, but with the tone implying yelling, ask me why the hell I didn’t get him the big bottle.
Just like with most dads, my ol’man took more than his share of good-natured jibes from the family all year.
But none on his birthday. He loved that— it might have been his favorite part of the day.
He loved even more when someone would let one slip, and he was able to remind, “Not on my birthday!”
Though the polka classic reminds that in heaven there is no beer— on December 10, I know there’s cheap, crappy, blended whiskey in heaven.
And Dad’s drinking it by the gallon with plenty of diet ginger ale. They must have it in a fancy place like heaven.