Alva James-Johnson: 'Thank you, Dad, for staying'

March 6, 2014 

My dad is a laid-back kind of guy. He doesn't like drawing attention or creating much of a stir.

When my sisters and I were growing up, he was always the "calm parent" who disciplined only when absolutely necessary. Most times we had already crossed the line, and Dad would quickly put us in check, sometimes without even saying a word -- a stern look was just as effective.

So, last month, as Dad celebrated his 80th birthday, he found himself in unfamiliar territory. He was the star of the show in a room filled with more than 50 people, all there in his honor.

My husband, two daughters and I had traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the big birthday brunch, along with one sister who flew in from Huntsville, Ala., and another who drove 24 hours from New York with her teenage son, their flights canceled in a snowstorm. My mother and our eldest sister, who both live in South Florida, were the on-site coordinators. By the time we rolled into town, everything was pretty much set. The only duties left were the finishing touches needed for a mini-documentary about Dad's life and video tributes from loved ones all along the East Coast and the Caribbean.

Why did we do all this for a guy who doesn't like the limelight? Because we believe in giving people flowers while they're still around to enjoy them. A few years prior, we orchestrated a similar function for my mother's 75th birthday -- and now it was Dad's turn. Dad, to our surprise, didn't do too bad amid all the fuss. As people gushed about his wonderful attributes, he just sat there with a pleasant look on his face. Still, he said later, he didn't know what he had done to deserve such accolades. In his mind, he was just a regular guy.

Well, since then, I've thought a lot about what makes my dad so special. He's not a man of great fame or wealth, though he is a talented artist and succeeded at a few entrepreneurial endeavors along the way. But he is man of integrity, someone who came to this country as a Caribbean immigrant about 50 years ago and -- along with my mother -- built a better life.

When my parents first migrated to the United States, my father worked as an orderly in a hospital and my mother as a nurse's aid. While raising four daughters -- and working full time -- they both went to nursing school and eventually became registered nurses. After that, my dad worked two full-time nursing jobs before retiring in 1996.

Yes, you read that right. After working the night shift at one hospital, Dad would turn right around and work the morning shift at another. Some would say that's insane, but that's just my dad. He believes in hard work. Besides, it paid my college tuition. So, I'm not going to complain about that.

Most of all, Dad was a father who stayed and raised us, despite challenging circumstances. Marriage wasn't always easy, but he and my mother made the best of it, providing a stable environment for their children. That alone is a major accomplishment, considering the countless number of single-parent homes in our society today.

My sisters and I could've ended up statistics, trapped in poverty and relegated to the margins of society. But having a father in the home made the difference, for which I'll always be grateful.

So, at my father's birthday bash, I decided to seize the moment and express such sappy sentiments. Holding a champagne glass filled with sparkling cider, I stood up to make a grand toast. "Thank you, Dad, for staying," I said, my voice breaking with emotion, while everyone responded with "Cheers."

And what did Dad do? Well, he just sat there, calm, cool and collected, with that subtle smile on his face.

Dad, I guess, will always be Dad.

Alva James-Johnson, reporter, ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.com.

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