This post has been in the making for weeks now. It’s officially the start of the holiday season, a season that my mom was told would be the hardest. The holiday to kick it off isn’t one celebrated around the world or even just in this country. It’s to celebrate the day that one of the most important people in my life was put on the earth to grow into the person I would call Dad. During the last few weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to celebrate someone’s birthday without them actually being here and I’ve got nothing.
A few weeks ago, when I was in sorority crafting mode, I returned my art supplies to their drawer (yes I aquired enough to designate an entire drawer to them) and found a LUSH bag filled with old cards. Most are from Pa from every single holiday spanning from the last day of third grade to Valentine’s Day and they’re the only cards I found after we moved out of Dad’s house this summer. Among the cards was a birthday card from my 19th from Dad. I realized that not only was that the only birthday card I have left from him but I won’t get to make him one for his birthday this year- today.
Last year for his birthday, he, as usual, made a very big deal about it- it was always seen as a national holiday in our house. He hinted, more than the previous years, about the surprise birthday party we were supposed to be throwing for him and said that he couldn’t wait to see how we’re celebrating him and showering him with gifts for the big 5-0.
Mom texted me earlier that week saying we should surprise him for his 50th birthday to which I happily agreed to. She picked me up and dropped me off at Dad’s right as Vicki and Stephie were pulling out of the parking lot to pick up the birthday dinner and due to being so close to the time that Vicki and Stephie left, as I walked up the stairs I heard him say “Uh oh, what’d you guys forget?” because he thought I was them.
I rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and him and Lisa were sitting on the couch completely surprised.
I can replay that entire moment. Seeing his smile, him getting up from the couch still in disbelief and the huge bear hug that followed. In one way it feels like it was yesterday, in another it feels like an eternity since I saw him smiling in that apartment- the last time was my birthday six months ago.
This year went a little differently.
I’ve noticed that around the age of 25, people stop wanting to get older and don’t draw too much attention to their birthdays. No one wants to acknowledge their age anymore or how much of their life has already been lived… Except for Dad who made sure to let us know what he wanted as his birthday present by August or September or possibly even November for the following year if he saw something really cool. He would joke about the surprise party he said we should throw or how something like a Salt Lamp would be “really cool to open up”. No one loved their birthday like John Wengler did and no matter how much we made fun of him each year or for his grey hair, I don’t think the words “Wow, I’m getting old” ever left his mouth. He was fully capable of doing everything he had been doing. Not that finding Oktoberfests or beer fests required too much energy but this is the guy who looked at me on my 20th birthday and said, “Why do you keep getting older while I keep getting younger and staying radiant and youthful?” He was simply 18 years old with 32 years experience.
My mom described this as a bad dream you can’t wake up from. It’s still unbelievable to me that someone who was filled with such an insane amount of life and happiness is no longer living. And looking back at the past 20 years I had with him gives me almost the same feeling as coming home from a vacation- it feels like the vacation was so good it was a dream compared to this new reality. How could twenty amazing years with him all of a sudden be over? How could this be the new reality? How do you celebrate someone’s birthday without them actually being there to blow out their own candles, cut their own cake and make their own birthday wish?
Mom also said he thought he was immortal. Even when he was sick, until the middle of June when he found out the treatment didn’t work, his stage four cancer, which gave him a 5- 10% chance, was just going to be a little blip to the start of the summer. There was no way he was ever leaving and he had full intentions of being his grandkids crazy grandpa living in the use- to- be spare bedroom. I know he’s always here and that he will be, but I think we can all agree that he was supposed to have double the amount of years he got. Just his memory is immortal now.
The years I had with him were the best and I’m not sure how the rest of my years can be topped but I know I can use the “Wengler Wisdom” he gave me to keep his memory alive…:
He knew how to have fun:
The first party my dad ever threw (to my knowledge) was when my grandparents took my dad’s sister to college. So, naturally, it resulted in someone throwing up on the carpet. His impressed sister said on the phone, “How’d you do that? I haven’t even thrown a party at the house.” His response was, “Well, no one’s ever been taken to college before.” When my grandparents got home he blamed the stain on the dog.
He was “one of the kids” from when he was a kid, to college, to present day:
For parents weekend last year we went to lunch in town and he told me three stories I had never heard before. One wasn’t really a story but after mentioning that the place we were eating at was a bad place to try using a fake id he mentioned that he and the rest of his friends had them- usually all with the exact same name, address and birthday. The next was that while throwing a party (in someone else’s house) he and his friends moved the furniture to the basement so that they wouldn’t get anything spilled on it. Turns out that water (alcohol?) leaked through the floor ruining the furniture anyways. The third was how they got their Christmas tree one year. Cutting off the top of one of the trees by the library. Then, he even got so into what the cool kids were doing in 2017 that he hopped on the social media train. And he wasn’t one of those dad’s who just made the account and forgot about it or made it for the sole purpose of stalking his kids. My sister’s friend’s got shoutouts on Twitter for their birthdays, I would receive snapchats of his girlfriend with the monkey emoji or top hat emoji on her head, he found zombie filters and would change his profile picture to it around Halloween, and once he sent a picture of the empty food cabinet with a filter that read “straight outta snacks”. We still have no idea how he did it. He also loved making the “pic- stitches” for our birthdays. So, to all of those tweets about posting pictures for family member’s birthdays and them not seeing them because they don’t have accounts, @jrwengler27 actually saw them all.
He believed that on the 8th day, God created beer:
He said always store the beer in the washing machine. Sounds silly, I’m sure. However, if your bucket or cooler leaks or breaks, it gets all over the floor leaving a mess for you and all of a sudden your parents are very aware of the party you threw. Filling the washer with ice and the beer assures no leakage. Drinking was also a very good way to minimize stress. He definitely knew the amount of stress that the few weeks before finals causes and so one night I got a text asking how I was doing. When I said stressed his reply was, “Perhaps you should try some alcohol.” His daughter’s response? “I already am right now.” All of the Septembers and Octobers were filled with Beer fests and my goodness was he good at finding them. My sister once had a swim meet the same weekend as one and unfortunately, he had to go to the swim meet. However, the caption of his check- in on facebook read “Swimfest”.
Life with a smile is the only way to live:
So many little stories come to mind when thinking about when he made us laugh. There’s the one of him darting from the kitchen to the “girls” bathroom to steal our hairbrush because he liked it better than his own. There’s one of him dancing when he got a new credit card in the mail (still have the video for anyone who’d like to laugh- he thinks it was deleted two years ago). A series of pictures exist of him trying on hats that made him look like a french man or a “hoodlum”. The day he passed away Vicki, Stephie and I sat around my computer watching his ice bucket challenge video that I took in our backyard four years ago and laughed the whole way through. I work these stories into conversations when I can and he’s still making us laugh. I remember how happy he got when he would see my sisters and I after a week at our mom’s. His face would light up into this goofy grin that was contagious. And he always made sure to keep himself smiling too- Every Friday after driving Stephie to school, Dad would stop by Wawa and get himself a coffee. What were these day’s called? Treat yo self Fridays. So every WAWA run we go on we call “Treat Yo Self xxx” for whatever day of the week it is. He brought nothing but a smile to my face and the memories I have do the same. Being happy seems to be everyone’s life goal and if you’ve achieved that you’ve arguably won life. And he did win, as well as everyone’s heart he touched. If I could be half as happy as him, I’ll have won too.
I don’t know how to celebrate a birthday without the “birthday boy” there. To be completely honest I shouldn’t and there’s probably no one that does. But Vicki, Stephie and I kicked it off with a Wawa run because coincidentally this year’s birthday falls on a treat- yo- self Friday.
Happy Birthday Dad.
I love you to the moon and back.