A Birthday Story.

Coconut Cake

So this last weekend I attended a birthday party for my very dear friend; I love her as a sister. She’s a gourmet cook, a planner, an organizer, and a doer. My friend is amazing in many ways, but one of the traits I admire most is her ability to bring people together. She is a most gracious hostess, a role she embraces with enthusiasm. I have helped with numerous parties and get-togethers at her home, where I’ve met dozens and dozens of her and her husband’s friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. These are people from all walks of life who come together around her table, and it is a glorious sight to see.

So it happened that as dessert was being served in the dining room, I was standing next to another friend, talking about her luscious coconut cake. After a moment he looked down at the dining room table and said something nostalgic like, Boy, that table sure has seen some good times, hasn’t it?  And I nodded and said, “It sure has.”

Around that table we’ve enjoyed many holiday meals, special desserts, and cheap Chinese takeout. We have assembled hundreds of kebabs and filled hundreds of plastic Easter eggs there. We have danced, sung songs and been an appreciative audience to violin, piano and guitar performances. We have given thanks, told jokes, offered toasts and discussed politics.  And we’ve played games: Greed, Family, Cranium, even Cards Against Humanity.

Some of the best times I’ve had in that house have been around that table. And this is where I see the power of the gift my friend has, because here, we are all equals.

Around that table sit the housewife and the artist, the winemaker and the corrections officer, the teacher and the landscaper, the student and the retiree, and the scientist and the yoga teacher. Police and former addicts, strangers with no place to go, vegetarians and carnivores, Harley riders and bicycle racers, they’re all there. Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Heinz 57 — makes no difference because we’re all friends and family. That table is like a little melting pot, and we all have that in common, even if little else.

All because of my friend — whose heart, as Mr. Stuck might say, is as big as Texas.

I wanted to give this toast to her on her birthday, but before I had the chance, she gave a most eloquent and emotional talk about love, standing on a chair so everyone could hear. She called upon us to reach into our hearts and think of what makes us happiest, then to send that warmth to a mutual friend who could not celebrate with us because she is undergoing treatment for cancer. It was very moving, and nothing more could be said. Our hearts were as one at that moment, and I hope our absent friend could feel the love.

So I offer this up as my tribute to my incredible friend, who used her own special day to shine light on someone else, because that is her way. It is through her that so many of us from so many different places in life have come together to be friends, and I am forever grateful.

You are amazing and wonderful, and I love you.

 

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photo credit: Southern Foodways Alliance

21.

Twenty-one is the ‘let your hair down’ birthday. It’s a good time; some of us even remember it.
I think it’s safe to say that many of these celebrations feature similar outcomes and somebody, somewhere, has pictures. In this day and age, those pictures will live forever, all over the world. So, In the spirit of love, lessons learned, and damage control, I’d like to offer a few words of advice to the initiate:

  • Drink as much water as you do alcohol.  You’ll thank me later.
  • Stay far away from tequila and anything featuring a creature at the bottom of the bottle.
  • In my experience, whiskey liqueurs, often used in sweet, syrupy drinks, never seem to end well.  Same for the ready-made cocktails — they were far better in theory than practice for me.
  • Water- or juice-based mixers are better than sodas. The carbonation in soda speeds up the alcohol absorption rate.
  • People can (and do) die from drinking too much alcohol. That’s a stupid way to die.  Don’t be that person.
  • Most importantly — MOST IMPORTANTLY — Don’t drink and drive. Don’t ride with someone who’s been drinking. We already know how that ends.

How about you? I think most all of us have a well-learned lesson in this arena: stupidity is universal and eternal.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

photo credit Droid Gingerbread

The Big Five-Oh.


Next year, I’ll be 50.  Half a century – you know, Nifty Fifty – ripe fodder for jokes about ‘Old-Timer’s Disease’, gag party gifts like adult diapers and Geritol, and paybacks for all the ribbing I gave my sisters as they reached that golden age.  

Fifty isn’t old.

Fifty isn’t traumatic.

Fifty isn’t the end of the world or the end of my life.  At least, I hope it isn’t.

But fifty is the number of years my sister Missy was given on this earth, and as I approach that birthday, my head and heart are filled with a certain apprehension – what if my life stopped right here?  Am I ready?  Would I fight it, or would I accept it?  Would I be strong enough?  I confess that because my sister Wendy died just a week shy of her 43rd birthday, I could think of nothing else when I reached 42.

When my sisters died, I was an adult, and so were they.  I am sure it is much more difficult for people who lost their brothers or sisters as children – I cannot even imagine, and I cannot speak for them.  Children tend to blame themselves when things like abuse or divorce happen; I suspect that they would also blame themselves if they lost a sister or brother.  I did not have that guilt; as a grown up, I knew it wasn’t my fault.

Still, the sad regret is there – the what ifs…the if onlys… the second-guessing…the replaying of events in my head.  And it’s not just family whose passing makes me compare my lifespan to theirs.  My friend Jon was only 32 when he perished in a house fire.  My dear friend Shirley was 47 when she succumbed to a pulmonary embolism (blood clot).  At each of those ages, I looked in the mirror and asked the questions for which I had no real answer.  I suppose this is a normal part of grieving and moving on.

Life offers no guarantees.  Today I talked with a friend about people who overcome extreme personal adversity, such as the loss of limbs or a grave illness, to live their lives not defined by, but in spite of, those circumstances.  We talked about how attitudes toward death can determine how we live.  We agreed that even for people like us, who do not live under the cloud of a serious disease or catastrophic injury, life holds no promises.  We talked about how life can change – or end – in a moment.  Can we ever really be ready?

So, at 32, with young children, I was grateful, but still checked my smoke detectors.  

At 42, I looked at my own family and was thankful that my sister’s passing would leave no children motherless. 

At 47, I thought about Shirley and how much she had done for others all of her short life. 

And when 50 comes, I will think about Missy and what a terrific grandma she would have been, and I will cherish every moment with my family.

Because sometimes, it feels like borrowed time.

photo credit tawest64

Remembering June.

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

Been in rather a blue funk for a few days.  In addition to the letdown after the hyperventilation surrounding high school graduation for my youngest; the impending 6-week hiatus from our dear friends; and the sick week I just had, it’s June.  June is Father’s Day and graduation, or, for those with younger kids, the month when school lets out and kids are underfoot.  Roses fill the air with their perfume; gardens explode in green; we celebrate the summer solstice; and Sir Paul McCartney and my friend Chris blow out birthday candles in June.

And it is also my sister Missy’s birthday.  Next week she would have been 52.

Two years ago, two of my sisters and I flew down to Georgia to visit Missy and join the sister who was already there.  It was the occasion of Missy’s 50th birthday, and she was in the hospital.  We wanted to make sure to give her a 50th birthday none of us would forget.  We brought along goodies she loved but couldn’t get in Georgia and took decorations and funny things to make her laugh.  Once there, we went shopping for more.  We got her a cake and even a little contraband — small ‘splits’ of wine we thought she might like to try.

None of us could voice what was aching in our hearts.  We were there because we feared that this birthday would be her last.  She needed us, and we needed her.  So we went down to spend time with her, all of us, together.  We would bring some fun to her for awhile and show her some sister love. Our eldest sister was already there helping to care for her, which was a blessing.  We came to see her husband and children and give them some support, as well.

When we first surprised her in her room, on our arrival, it was wonderful.  She hadn’t known we all were coming, and it was a joyous occasion.  Missy perked up, and we set about fussing over her, laughing and joking like old times.

A couple of nights later, in the darkened and vacant hotel lobby, with poster board, markers, and stickers, the four of us made signs to brighten her room.  We laid the paper on the floor and drew around our feet; we traced our hands and thought of silly slogans to write.  We talked and sang and danced and laughed until we nearly wet our pants.  I haven’t felt so close to my sisters in a long while.

The day of her birthday, we arranged for her to be taken out of her room for a few minutes while we set up her party decorations.  We had hoped to put a sign on the outside of her door, as well, but the staff wouldn’t allow it.  No matter — we had streamers and hats and noisy things and cards and little fun gifts for her.  We had cake and shrimp and the contraband wine.  We had to stall the nurse a bit, but when it was all ready, we gave the high sign for her to come in.

She was happily surprised at the party; in addition to her husband and sons and us girls, she had other visitors and well-wishers.  We sang and chatted and she opened her gifts; we had silly hats and glasses for her, as well as a big round ‘button’ made of a paper plate pinned to her gown that said, “Ask Me about AARP!” (American Association of Retired Persons)  We all had fun.  Afterward, she was tired, so we toned it all down and left her to rest.

I will always remember that visit more for the bonding we shared during those days than for what specific things we did or talked about.  We all carry the scar of losing the sister who died with our parents fourteen years ago; that is a sad, but strong, bond we already share.  Even as different as we all are, our love for each other is steadfast.

I wish I could better describe that feeling of oneness with my sisters; it is rather new, as we are not all close in age, and therefore didn’t all grow up together.  We are of three different groups within the family: the two eldest sisters and my brother, who is firstborn, are the first group; after a five-year gap, there are two more girls; after another five years, Missy and me.  We have always been a close family overall, but after we lost our parents and sister in 1999, we realized how short life is and we drew tightly to one another.  We are not often all together physically, either, since one lives in Georgia, one spends half the year in Arizona, and the rest of us live in Washington.  For those few days, we were all together, with no agenda but to be grateful for them and enjoy ourselves.

There is a lot more to this story, but there will be time for that.  Let’s just say that she left us at the age of 50, which was far too young.  Life is so damned short.

So I’m blue.  My heart aches with the weight of memory and loss.  Junes will come and go, but they will always be Missy’s month: not only was it her birthday, but her husband’s birthday is the week before, and their wedding anniversary falls in between.

Dads and grads may take the spotlight, but June belongs to her.