Today, my dad turns 70.
For many people, it would mean their father has reached a milestone age. The first real birthday into their more senior years. For me, it means my dad has beaten so many odds to still be here with us.
30 years ago, my dad, Reverend Henry Chait, was one of the greatest chazzonim there was. His fame reached all points of the earth and people would come from far and wide to hear him sing. He was at the peak of his career, yet no one could imagine the future that lay ahead of him.
A few years later, whilst my mum was still pregnant with me, he was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It was unheard of for someone at such a young age to have this illness.
For those that aren’t familiar with Parkinson’s, it is a degenerative disease that affects the motor system in the body; essentially, he slowly started to lose the ability to control his limbs. It is a heart-breaking illness to watch progress. His mind was as sharp as a tack but his body started to fail him. Unfortunately, he lost the ability to control his voice as well.
I have never heard my dad sing the way thousands of people describe. I’ve seen videos, I’ve heard CDs but I’ve never experienced it live. My siblings had the fortune to be old enough to remember, but my earliest memory of my dad’s work was sitting on his office chair whilst he emptied his desk. I can still see it now; I was at the bottom of the grand staircase we had in our shul and he started walking down holding a portrait of himself that hung in the building. I could see the sadness in his eyes but at that age, I didn’t realise what it meant.
Life was hard. When I was a kid, I would see my friends’ dads outside playing with them. They’d have daddy-daughter ice cream dates. They’d run into their dad’s open arms to be thrown around in the air. I knew then that things were different in my family. I didn’t have any of those things and for a long time, I questioned why. I questioned how it was fair that I never got the chance, like the rest of my brothers and sisters, to see him healthy. Why was I the only one in my family that only ever knew him with illness and not just him?
But over time, I accepted that where my dad may be physically disabled, his mind was far greater than anyone else’s. If you start reading any perek in the Torah, my dad could always finish it. Any song in the world, from his favourite Whitney Houston “I Will Always Love You” to Adon Olam, he knew every single word. His wit was unrivaled and he would always be ready with something to make us laugh.
Growing older showed me how lucky I am that he is with me at all. Many times over the past 10 years, there have been moments where the doctors have prepared us for the worst. Eventually, he’d be discharged once more, giving his doctors a cheeky grin. He always showed them that he is not that predictable.
There are good days and bad days. There are days where the battle is that much harder.
But he is adored. With a wife, 7 children, 15 grandchildren and so many birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and celebrations to attend, his life is full. Fuller than many other people who have perfect health.
He shows the appreciation we should have for each day we’re given and the value of each minute we live.
For many years, I worried that my dad wouldn’t be in my life for the pinnacle moments. 5 years ago, he came very close to leaving this world. I sat there by myself holding his hand and whispered in his ear ‘this is not over, you haven’t been at my wedding, you haven’t yet met my children’. A tear rolled down his face.
2 years later, he came down the aisle with me at my chuppa and 2 years after that, he held my daughter in his arms.
Yes, the odds were certainly against him but that never mattered in his eyes. He shows us he is in control and he will never let anything beat him without a fight.
Happy 70th birthday dad; I can’t wait to be celebrate plenty more.