My grandfather would have been 83 years old today. If he were alive right now, I would probably be putting the final touches on his birthday cake and trying to rush around to find the last-minute perfect gift. Most likely, it would have been something for his kitchen, since 90 percent of my memories with him revolved around the kitchen table. Me gobbling up his pancakes or tomato salad as he told me stories of growing up in upstate Pennsylvania. Or how when I would turn down a piece a fruit after breakfast, he would remind me that when he was growing up, fruit was a treat. He would only receive an orange in his stocking at Christmas, so I should be so lucky to be able to have one each day!
I never did find out of that story was true (in fact, most of his stories were exaggerated), but that doesn't matter now.
Instead of stressing about last-minute present preparation like I do for most loved one's birthdays (I take card shopping very seriously. I'm the woman that spends a good half hour reading cards till I find one that makes me cry), I'm reflecting on his life and his continuous influence on it.
Growing up, he always went out of his way to treat me like an actual person instead of a little kid. He would tell me the truth about life, even if it wasn't so pretty. When my parents would fight, he wouldn't try to cover up and say that they were "talking loudly."
"People yell and scream, but they get happy again," he'd say as we sat in the kitchen.
"Imagine living with someone for as long as your parents have been together. That would get on your nerves too."
When I didn't understand why my grandmother couldn't do regular activities like go to the mall with us because she was suffering from a health ailment that kept her in bed for several years, he explained that people support us in different ways.
"You know, just because a chicken doesn't cluck like the rest of the chickens doesn't mean she's less of a chicken," he would say when I tried to make comparisons to my friends' grandparents.
And he was right; although my grandmother spent most of her time bedridden while I was younger because of a back injury, she still showered me with love and attention. Her bed was the perfect place to play Barbies and dress up. In fact, some of my happiest childhood memories took place laying in bed with my grandmother, talking about life.
The greatest gift my grandfather gave to me was his persistent encouragement to be a writer. As a little girl, I poured through notebooks and journals, writing various pieces of proses. Sometimes I was a reporter like Harriet the Spy and would ask him for quotes. Other times I dedicated my writing to princesses and princes. No matter what the focus of the month was, he would listen to the entire thing, and give honest feedback.
"Eh, I think you can make it more exciting on the third page. How about some earthquakes," he would add if he thought the story would be too sappy. When I would come to him with the revisions, he'd nod his head. "Now that's fantastic," he'd say slowly, taking it all in.
On summer afternoons he'd drive me to the local library and help me carry out piles of books to check out.
"How can a little girl read so many books in two weeks time?" the librarian once said as we were checking out the books. He looked at me and gave his famous "are you serious" look to the woman.
"My granddaughter isn't just any kid. She's a writer, so reading is part of who she is. I guarantee she'll read these within a week's time."
A week later we went back to the library after I finished all of my books, and he shot the lady a "told you so" smile.
"One day you're going to be a published writer," he'd say to me at age 10, a time when most adults humor children about their childhood dreams.
"You have a special gift, and you're going to use your gift for good." Just knowing that someone who I loved and respected had that much faith gave me the confidence to continue writing.
Now at the age of 22, I can call myself a published writer. I've seen my name in print, and have received compliments and encouragement by family members who had no idea I could write till I was in college.
My grandfather never was able to see my name in print. He was never able to read my first article published in my high school or college newspaper. I wasn't able to pick up the phone and call him when my first Huffington Post piece was published.
Out of all the things I wish I could tell him now, it would be that his encouragement is the reason I worked so hard to be a writer. That without his honesty and faith as a little girl, I would of eventually stopped scribbling in my notebook.
My birthday wish for my grandfather is that he is happy, wherever the after life may be. I hope that somehow he has seen how I have grown into an accomplished young woman, and that he is proud of me. Most of all, I hope he understands how much of an influence on my life he had in the short amount of time he was in it.
The next time you celebrate a loved one's birthday, forget about the wrapping paper or the dinner reservations. Take the time to let them know how special they are, and in what ways they've touched your life, even if they are not the most sentimental type. Because one day you will be celebrating their birthday without them, and the perfect present won't seem that important anymore.