When I was 11 years old, my father bought me an atlas for my birthday. It was an oversized, linen-covered powder blue book with the National Geographic logo embossed in gold on the cover. My dad and I opened it up together, thumbed through the hundreds of multi-hued maps, and I got my first glimpse of the breadth and scope and magnitude of the world we live in. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an explorer,” my dad said, explaining in his quiet voice. “Maybe someday you’ll see all of the places in this book.” The gift of the atlas was just one of the countless doors my dad opened for me, just one of the idea-wicks he lit in my head. It was my dad who read the stories I wrote and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I should become a professional writer. It was my dad who encouraged me, patiently, when I tried to give up on hard things: “What would you do if you had no other option? You’d figure out a way, wouldn’t you? So let’s pretend you have no other option. What will you do?”

My dad is on my mind these days, more now than usual, because today he celebrates his 80th birthday, a milestone that I can scarcely comprehend. Dad doesn’t sound or look 80, except for the bum hip that slows him down a bit. My dad is handsome, shy, loves watching John Wayne flicks, reading history books and being head over heels in love with my mother. He is well versed in facing hard things head on. Born in Chicago, my dad survived a tumultuous childhood, and then served his country in Vietnam as a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps. One might assume that his early history would have molded him into a tough, hard-as-nails sort of character, and that may indeed be a bit of him, but it’s far from the whole story. My father is the definition of gentleness. When we were growing up, sometimes he’d have to do away with a woodchuck that was destroying my mother’s garden. Killing the woodchuck was always a dark day for Dad, he’d stay by himself for a while, and we’d pretend to not see the tears in his eyes. This is the essence of my father — the rugged, resilient and pragmatic doctor who always has the answer to everything, and whose heart is as big and soft and vulnerable as the first green shoots of spring.

I picture the dad of my childhood, coming home every day for lunch from his podiatry practice in a striped necktie and boiling water on the stove for his Cup O’ Noodles, his routine so reliable you could set your watch to it. Sometimes he’d bring me to work with him so I could help out in his office. As much as I whined and complained about this duty (“But Dad, it’s summer!”) there was one aspect of it that I absolutely loved, and it was watching my dad in action. I liked to listen to the way he talked to his patients. And how he would listen to them. There was something about my dad’s calm, respectful manner that would make people open up and tell him things: stories, worries, ideas. Even as a little girl, I would watch the way my dad’s patients looked at him and understood exactly how they felt; they trusted him and felt safe in his care. Dad retired two years ago and closed his podiatry practice after 45 years, but right up until the end he was still making house calls to people who needed them, still caring for folks who could not afford to pay.

Growing up, my dad could be a tough nut to crack. He was quiet by nature and didn’t often volunteer what he was feeling or how he was experiencing the world. I had so many questions, but from a young age, I sensed his need for privacy, and I left my questions unsaid. The one thing I always knew for sure was that he loved us fiercely. I knew this from his stubborn sensibility when it came to his expectations of us, from the light in his eyes when we’d tell a funny story, from the radiant way he looked at my mother.

There’s one thing about my father that only a few people know, and in honor of my dad turning 80 today, I’m now going to share this information with the world: My dad can make cars fly. This is not make-believe. I swear to you that he can do it. I have experienced it myself and so have my two children, so if you don’t believe me, you can ask them. On the way to school on most mornings I would beg my dad to fly the car, and he’d usually comply but the conditions had to be exactly right. Buckled up and holding on tight, we’d slowly begin to accelerate, then faster and faster still. “Are you ready? Here we go!” I’d watch my dad grin as the car would tilt and rise, and we’d feel the final bump of the rear wheels as they left the road and up, up into the sky we would soar. “Tell me what you can see,” Dad would say without turning his head. Like always, he was keeping his eyes on the sky ahead of us.