I made it another year this week. One more completed orbit around sun. One more renewal subscription to the local Harris County News. One more year I’ve put off doing anything about that soft spot in the pantry floor.
Time gets away. I didn’t mean to get here so soon. The special day was just last Tuesday and already I’ve gotten two senior discounts and have shown my Medicare card to friends more than pictures of my grandchildren.
When you’re young, birthdays are about parties. When you’re old, birthdays are about combing your hair, petting the dog and talking to the kids on the phone.
I don’t have much memory of birthdays from my childhood, but I do have 8mm home movies. A Kodak Browning camera mounted with lights bright enough to spot a coon in the top of a tree from a quarter mile away. Six or eight small boys and girls gathered around the kitchen table.
What dates this image the most is the fact that the girls are all wearing dresses that their mamas made for them. White socks and black strap-over shoes. The boys have Brylcreem comb-over hair. A couple of cowlicks pointing toward the sky. Everyone is wearing little pointy hats with an elastic string under their chin.
There’s me in the middle with a big grin on my face. I’m the only one in a chair and I’m half sitting, half pushed up on my knees. Mama comes into the frame and sets a cake with candles on the table in front of me. There’s no sound, but you can tell that this crowd is singing the happy birthday song in classic form. I almost expect Wally and the Beaver to show up any minute.
I don’t remember that we ever put on this kind of shindig for Mom or Dad. It was like they didn’t even have birthdays. In a kid’s world, the adults just exist. You don’t think about them having friends or parties or a good time. You certainly don’t picture them in a party hat. They provide the parties. They don’t get one for themselves. At least, that’s the way it was in my head.
The rule in our family seems to be that the parties eventually stop. You get cake. You get cards. Some might have money in them. But no party.
“This one’s from your granny.” “Here’s one from me and your dad.”
You take it and tear into it because you know there’ll be a five-dollar bill inside. It’s not as much fun as a party. There’s a little bit of a letdown when you realize you’ve outgrown the thrill. But you take it like a man and move on. You learn that the world doesn’t revolve around you and that life is not about how many parties you get.
Although I am all grown up now, I’m not a complete birthday grinch. I still like candles. I’m in favor of cake. I like making people smile.
When Beth turned 50, I threw her a party. I planned way ahead. This was not the typical male thrown-together-at-the-last-minute bash. We had a venue at the Coca-Cola Space Science Center in Columbus. I hired a few college students from the Schwob School of Music at CSU to come in tux and black tie. They brought two violins and a cello, and they played chamber music as background to the chatter and cake. It was a gala kind of evening, and she was completely taken back that I had pulled it off.
It wasn’t easy, getting her there.
“Why are we going to the Science Center?” She was suspicious that something was up.
We were going out to supper, she thought. Going downtown didn’t make sense to her. “Well, Shawn’s got a disc he wants to give me. We’re going by to pick it up.”
“Why can’t he just give it to you tomorrow at church?”
“I need it tonight.”
“Why do you need it tonight?”
I kept dodging a long string of questions until we pulled up and parked. There were lots of cars. Lots of people. Her dad was there all the way from Selma. Plenty of food. Plenty of cake. Good friends who turned out to wish her well at the half century mark. It was almost like a party but without the pointy hats.
God, I miss her. She made birthdays fun just by being herself and sharing the day with me. We didn’t make anything very fancy out of it. She might cook me a special meal. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits, corn casserole and sweet peas. Or, she might let me chose the movie we watch that night. We’d have a piece of cake and a glass of milk about midway through the evening. Just sitting together, watching the years pass together.
This is the first of many things without her. I know this. This is no surprise. It did not sneak up on me because I’ve been thinking about it all along the way. But knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it any more pleasant to face. Understanding that holidays and anniversaries and trips to special places won’t be the same any more doesn’t take away the fact that you still have to go through them. And the first time is the hardest.
There’s a baby shower today for Emily. One of our friends is hosting the party at her home. I’m not involved. At all. But I told her how much I appreciated her stepping up to help make this happen. She said she was doing her best and hoped that it would all go well.
Then she added, “I just keep thinking about what Beth would want and how she would do things.”
And she’s right, you know. Beth would be there, but not today. And it will be a strange mixture of sadness and celebration for my girls today. They are having a party without their mama for the first time. They will learn a little more of what it feels like to move on with life.
I don’t want you to think that my birthday was a dark day or anything like that. I did have cake. Emily made sure of that. I had cards. Zelda made her own with a picture of me, her, Max and Boo Radley, the cat. We all looked like we just came from a party. My son gave me candles in my pancakes for supper. Laura video called and all of the G crew sang HBD to me. So, it was perfect. Really.
Here is the important part, I think. I am discovering that it’s okay to celebrate life in her absence. Sometimes I feel guilty. Sometimes I feel like it’s inappropriate. Sometimes I just don’t feel like it. But in the deepest part of my soul, I know it’s okay to laugh and to smile and to enjoy the day. She would want that.
Life does move on, regardless. And next year, I might even wear a pointy hat.