a birthday song for my dad

James: fisherman, harmonica champion, Facebook fanatic, lemon meringue pie eater.

Not too long ago, when my father was a young whippersnapper in his late 80’s, we gave him an internet subscription for his birthday.

He was already on the computer playing video games, but had yet to venture onto the world wide web. He started out with a dial-up connection, quickly learned the ins and outs of sending emails, and before we knew it he was happily visiting news sites, participating in a chat forum, and placing dollar wagers on his favorite lottery sites.


Today, James turns 102. Willful and wireless, he’s burned through at least 3 desktops since his first foray online.

Every day he logs onto Facebook and shares clusters of updates with his friends. Ever the fastidious organizer, he opts for a recurring series of themed posts rather than mundane status reports: tree houses, bonsai plants, interesting facts, old Hawai’i, music fix of the day, joke of the day, and of course, FOOD. On Sundays he shares a hymn and a prayer.

Dad and me at Haleiwa Beach Park

When my mom was still alive, we all rooted for James to reach his 100th birthday. One of his goals was to live long enough to see my nephew Jared graduate from high school.

Well, Jared graduated this past June, but sadly, my mother missed my father’s 100th birthday by 7 months. These days, James has two new goals: live to be 105 and be the oldest person on Facebook.

With my parents and brother Newton at Grandma’s house

We remain amazed and humbled by his ongoing curiosity and engagement with the world, his ability to adapt to modern technology. Though physically unable to go fishing at Kaena Point, play the slot machines in Las Vegas, or meticulously craft something out of wood with his hammer, plane and chisel, he’s carved out a stimulating virtual life thanks to his computer.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though. A long time emphysema patient, he’s now on 24/7 oxygen. He had an excruciatingly painful spinal compression fracture that was successfully treated (thank goodness) with kyphoplasty, and three years ago, James developed swallowing problems.

The doctors were baffled since they couldn’t figure out why — no disease, infection, or neurological cause. Were his throat muscles simply atrophying because of age? So they inserted a feeding tube in his abdomen. This, for someone whose love of food was legendary, who looked forward to every meal every day, sometimes carefully planning what to eat next at 4 hour intervals.

Four and a half daily cans of formula replaced his papaya and Eggo waffle breakfast, leftovers or tuna sandwich for lunch, mid afternoon snack of banana and peanuts, and his favorite Chinese food for dinner. I never heard him complain and he said he didn’t feel hungry. But it must have been pretty disheartening not being able to eat what he loved most of all — my mom’s cooking. No more bulgogi, cucumber kimchi, tripe stew, chicken hekka, dumpling soup. And no more of his favorite treats: rocky road ice cream, lemon meringue pie, chocolate covered macadamia nuts.

Dad posing for a selfie with my cousins at his 100th birthday party. He couldn’t eat a piece of birthday cake back then.

When we visited, I sometimes helped with the feeding tube. He wasn’t even able to drink a glass of water by mouth, and any pain meds had to be administered with a syringe. While the rest of the family gathered around the kitchen table for a meal, James sat alone in another room at his computer, a bag of formula suspended from an IV pole.

My aunt calls him the Energizer Bunny. No matter what, he just keeps on going. Feeding tube protruding from his stomach, oxygen cannula in his nostrils, hearing aide in one ear, glasses perched on his nose — he takes it all in stride.

Enter the power of chocolate.

One day, about a year and half ago, Dad asked for M&M’s. Everyone was concerned, of course, since his throat muscles had probably atrophied even further, and with his emphysema, there was a risk of choking or aspirating. But my brother got him a bag of M&M’s, and slowly, one by one, James practiced chewing and swallowing them.

As his confidence grew, he started eating small amounts of soft foods like papaya, and could drink thick liquids. Gradually, more of his feeding tube meals were replaced with real food eaten by mouth, and today, he’s back to eating all his favorite things normally again. Like us, his doctor was baffled and amazed, since this was nothing short of a miracle. It’s not every day a 100-something-year-old man suddenly decides he can do something that defies logic.

Oldest pic we have of Dad (standing in the middle), with his older brother John and sister Lily on my grandmother’s lap).

I really can’t fathom what it must be like to live for over a century, to have one of your earliest memories be of your father taking you downtown to celebrate the signing of the Armistice at the end of WWI, then later working at the Naval Shipyard when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, marking the start of WWII.

James the matinee idol

He’s lived through the Great Depression and 17 Presidents, remembers when prohibition was lifted, Honolulu had streetcars, and a big bowl of wonton mein cost only 15 cents. He remembers when the only way tourists could travel to Hawai’i was via ocean liner, and the Waikiki skyline with Diamond Head wasn’t obstructed by high rise hotels.

He taught himself how to play the harmonica (winning O’ahu championship at age 14) and how to drive at age 16. He has sung “Oh Promise Me” at many weddings and gifted all his children with a love of music. He still has beautiful penmanship, and it’s good to know that if you tour the English countryside with him and there are any sheep or ducks about, he’ll be thinking in terms of roast leg of lamb and duck Γ  l’orange for dinner. πŸ™‚

He counts jet airliners, microwave ovens, color TVs, cloning, hybrid cars, iPhones, iPads, Google, and the internet among the greatest inventions he’s seen in his lifetime.

His secret to longevity?

There is no secret to longevity. I was just blessed by the Good Lord to enjoy life. I would like my family to remember me as one who loved music, played his harmonica, went fishing and spent hours on the computer. The best day of my life was when I married Margaret.

As my wise mother always said, James will probably outlive us all. His steely determination to keep on keeping on, to take one day at a time, and to find what joy he can in each moment, is the greatest gift he could ever give us. Aren’t we blessed beyond belief?

Here’s a good song about time, getting older, and honoring the past.


by Janis Ian

See these lines on my face?
They’re a map of where I’ve been
And the deeper they are traced,
the deeper life has settled in
How do we survive living out our lives?

And I would not trade a line
Make it smooth and fine
or pretend that time stands still
I want to rest my soul
here where it can grow without fear
Another line, another year
I’m still standing here

See these marks on my skin?
They are the lyric of my life
Every story I begin
just means another end’s in sight
Only lovers understand
Skin just covers who I am


See these bruises, see these scars?
Hieroglyphs that tell the tale
You can read them in the dark
through your finger tips
like Braille


I’m still standing here
I’m still standing here

Β© Rude Girl Pub. All rights reserved; international copyright secured.



Thanks to James, there was always music playing in our house while I was growing up. Some of his favorite songs: “O Sole Mio,” “Greensleeves,” “One Alone,” “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” “Toselli Serenade,” and “Stardust.” This version by Nat King Cole is simply sublime.


poetry fridayOur favorite fairy queen Brenda Davis Harsham is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup at Friendly Fairy Tales. Tiptoe over and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. Have a good weekend!
Copyright Β© 2016 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

89 thoughts on “a birthday song for my dad

  1. Happy Birthday to your amazing Dad, Jama! With his winning attitude and engagement in life, the Energizer Bunny is definitely on his way to 105! Love the picture of the two of you. You are so lucky to have had him all these years-as he is to have had you!


  2. I don’t remember if you’ve told us ‘all’ of your dad’s story, but am so glad you did today! What an amazing life to have lived-17 presidents! Love hearing about the computer. It might be a nice book to create from his posts? And that music, favorites of my parents too, of course. Happy Birthday to your dad, Jama, and best wishes for continuing a new year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve shared bits and pieces about him over the years, Linda. When he was in his 90’s, we were pretty impressed then. But now — he defies all expectations. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your father is an amazing man! He reminds me a bit of M’s uncle, who lived to 101 and learned to use and love the internet at 85. How wonderful that chocolate helped him with his swallowing problem and that he can now eat his favourite foods again.

    A very Happy Birthday to James, and many more!


    1. Interesting to hear about M’s uncle. The internet is such a wonderful lifeline for seniors. Just goes to show it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks!


  4. THIS — this has made my day. I remember when he was shooting for 100, and when your Mama passed, I so worried for him — but that he’s made it this far and set a new goal has made me tear up.

    β€œListen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me: anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”

    Go, James.


  5. Happy, happy birthday to your dear Dad, Jama! So many pearls of wisdom in this post, not the least of which is the power of chocolate. I will celebrate your dad with a bag of M&M’s today. =)


  6. What a beautiful post and tribute to your father, Jama!!

    And in case he’s tuning in to your blog: Happy 102nd Birthday, James!! I’m so happy to read that you can enjoy all of your favorite foods again. You are an inspiration πŸ™‚


  7. This post is so sweet, I read it three times to savor the old photos and listen to the clips. Your father is amazing–your whole family is amazing, but James tops you all! What an incredible man. You must be so proud. I wish him many more birthdays and will be the first to cheer when he is the oldest person on Facebook!


    1. Yes, we are all very proud of him. He’s good at keeping everybody on their toes, especially my brother (good thing he knows how to fix computers). I’m wondering how I could find out who actually is the oldest person on FB. I doubt anyone could be posting as many posts as James does each day.


  8. Wow! A big Happy Birthday to your dad! He is amazing! What a blessing he is able to eat the foods he loves again! Lovely post, Jama. So inspiring…. 😊 I have an aunt like him in Honolulu – – though she’s only 96 right now… I hope she can be like your dad.


  9. Happy Birthday, James! You and your daughter are such an inspiration. So happy you can enjoy some cake (and other goodies) at your celebration. What an amazing recovery! Thanks so much for this uplifting post, Jama. Just what we all need. ❀


  10. Happy Birthday, James! I love the story of you….and you becoming you. Can’t wait to celebrate your 105th. Take care and I will have to find some M&Ms to celebrate you with. Keep that Jama girl in line. She’s a treasure and I look forward to reading something from her weekly. xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What a tribute–I feel like I know him. 105 is an admirable goal. I was very pleased to see β€œWhen I Grow Too Old to Dream” on the list of his favorite songs. I know it, but not many other people do. It’s an oldie and it always makes me tear up when I sing it. (It could just be the quality of my singing that has that effect on my tear ducts!) All the best to you and James!


  12. And now the purple dust of twilight time… I like many of those same tunes. Your dad is a classy guy. Love is now the stardust of yesterday, the music of the years gone by. Ahhh. I could linger here awhile, with a piece of cake and waiting to sing happy birthday. Those pictures are adorable. All the best!


  13. Amazed and impressed! There’s something to be said for setting personal goals and defying the odds. Sending the sweetest birthday wishes to your Dad, with a sprinkle of M&M’s on top!


  14. What a loving and inspiring celebration of a remarkable and fascinating man! Funnily enough I was thinking of my dad with my post this week too (my dad loves cats even more than I do!) – it’s wonderful to have fathers that we respect and admire, isn’t it? Wishing your father nothing but happiness!


  15. Happy Birthday James! I will remember the M & M story forever! Likewise, my 70 year old cousin’s vow that he will keep surfing till the day he dies (he still does longboard)! I’m a babe of 65 & hope to live as full a life as you! Aloha!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Late to the party, yet here I am walking away with these gifts inspired by your amazing dadβ€”a beautiful post, beautiful song, and an overwhelming desire for lemon meringue pie and a side of m&m’s. Thanks Jama. Thanks Dad. Happy birthday!


  17. I enjoyed learning about your father so much. He sounds like a wonderful man. I love that he is again able to enjoy his favorite foods. Please wish him a very Happy Birthday for me. I’m praying he reaches his 105th!


    1. My Dad kind of puts all of us to shame. It’s good incentive to stop complaining about my aches and pains and to view life from a different perspective.


  18. Happy birthday to James! I’m so glad he can eat by mouth again and that he’s still enjoying the internet.


    1. I do think the internet has extended his life. He’s remained engaged with the outside world and is able to keep in touch with his family.


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