Life Stories: I Intended to Surprise My Daughter for her Birthday… But the Biggest Surprise Was for Me

As a single dad and sole parent of 5 children for the past 19 years, I have always tried to make a big deal over my kid’s birthdays. It was easy when the children were little and all living at home. Invite some friends, add in 4 siblings, attend a NJ Devils’ hockey game, dinner at their favorite age-appropriate restaurant (which sometimes had the brothers and sisters complaining) and a few nice gifts – and you had a very happy child. Now my children are all in their 20’s, and living in other cities. It’s harder to make their birthdays rock.

So this past week, I traveled to from New Jersey to Washington DC to pay a surprise visit to my middle daughter on her 23rd birthday. I had contacted her boyfriend in advance to coordinate how we would carry out the surprise. The plan was for me to show up at a birthday party she was having at a DC restaurant and bar with some college friends and co-workers. Since it was just before Halloween, it was going to be a costume party. That worked out well for me since my costume, a NJ Devils’ jersey and cap, would allow me to enter the party without her seeing me.

I entered the bar area, and walked up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. The surprised look, smile, tears and hug told me I had already succeeded in rocking her birthday. It was difficult for me to spend time there that night since the place started to fill up with twenty somethings to a point where I became a millennial sandwich. The establishment clearly was not observing any kind of fire code limit as the place was packed. It was a typical kid’s Saturday night out with way-too-loud music, young girls dressed like they were going to a ball (even though the bar was very casual) and drinks in everyone’s hands – except for me and my daughter’s boyfriend.

As I watched about 300 youngsters party and drink a thought occurred to me. Is it a coincidence that the only two people in the room that weren’t drinking were me and my daughter’s boyfriend? With the mathematical odds on that at about 150-1, it was obvious there was more to this than just luck. The immediate thought I had was of the old adage about how girls look to be with men like their fathers. Was that playing out right in front of me? I don’t drink at all and neither does her boyfriend.

But was this simply about a similar preference; a dislike of the taste of alcoholic drinks or was there something deeper at play? The answer became clear when I questioned them about why he doesn’t drink. He’s a medical student and is studying for his board exams. He doesn’t want to be distracted from his work or have his performance reduced. He doesn’t like losing control and acting inappropriate. I don’t drink for similar reasons.

I also watched him soberly watching over my daughter – watching her purse, watching to make sure she was safe and comfortable. He was doing the very things I had done for her, for the past 23 years. This young man was demonstrating the same qualities that made her feel safe and loved by me. It was proof-positive my daughter learned how she expected to be treated my men in her life by how I treated her – and I can’t think of a better feeling than that for me.

Watching this unfold brought a smile to my face. I felt like she would be safe and cared for in a life with him. And then it occurred to me that she may have found the man who will replace me as the most important person in her life. I wiped away a tear and the smile returned when I realized this is exactly what I had been trying to do since the day she was born.

Loving dads ultimately raise their daughters to find love in another. That ensures our daughters will feel the love they deserve, long after we’re gone.

I did not think anyone could love my daughter as much as I do. I am thrilled to have met the man who is going to try. — Matt Sweetwood

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