Little Shiny Things

Glass sea creatures by Leopold & Rudolph Blaschka.

Glass sea creatures by Leopold & Rudolph Blaschka.

Birthdays, for me, are notable for nothing so much as a reminder of how quickly time passes.  And when I start thinking about that, I start thinking the Why are we hereWhat’s the meaning of life? kind of questions that have no definitive answers, and then my head starts to hurt.  I’ve felt this way since I was a kid.  At least there were gifts, then, and a cake to distract me.

I’m not that crazy about cake anymore, and there is nothing I really need, so on my birthday in those first few moments of waking, I generally feel a pang, a longing for something I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps if I had not been born in the dead of winter?  Maybe the longing is simply for sun.

Sunday, the 25th, was my birthday.  This year there happened to be sun.  As well as son of the other kind, and a plan.

And there were Facebook friends to keep me buoyed.

The first Happy Birthday popped up the evening before.  I was surprised. When I checked, it was a Facebook friend from Athens, Greece.  It made me smile and think about this woman who lived so far away, and where, for her, it was officially my birthday.  A few more birthday greetings followed shortly after that.  One was from a woman I adore, who is usually up rather late at night, and who was glad not to miss leaving her good wishes.  I went to bed thinking about that woman — a dear friend of my husband’s late grandmother (another woman I adored).  She’s also known me since I was a little girl.  She gets special props for that.

In the morning over coffee, I checked Facebook again.  There were more birthday wishes. More of me thinking fondly on each person who posted. More smiling going on, inside and out.

The plan for the day was a trip to Boston.  Drive up, pick up the Boy, and drive to the Museum of Science to spend the afternoon.  On the way, I kept checking to see how many more people had wished me a happy birthday.  The number kept growing.  I kept announcing the number to my husband as he drove.

We whiled away a lovely afternoon at the museum.  Later in the day, as I stood scanning the central room in search of Husband and Boy, I thought about all the people there — young and old, grandparents, parents, children, all of them exploring, touching, laughing.  So alive.  As opposed to the army of scientists and mathematicians whose ideas informed the basics of so many of the exhibits.

There is nothing like wandering around a museum to bring home the point of time passing by.

Still, throughout the day–a peek here, a glance there–at the increasing number of people who took a second to say Hey you, Happy Birthday kept me from wading too deeply into the murky musings of mortality.  People were waving and smiling at me from all over the world.

What a strange and wondrous world we live in.

There’s a lot to be said about the pros and cons of social media.  It’s the scourge of our society, a time suck, a spy.  It’s blessing, it’s a curse.

What I will say is this.  I read every single birthday greeting I received.  Time (the greedy bugger) did not allow for me to reply to every one, or even very many, but I liked each one which, for me, at least, serves the purpose of acknowledgment.

I can tell you that with every smile and wave you sent, I pictured each and every one of you.  How I know you, or how long.  Some of you I grew up with, went to school with, worked with, acted with, wrote with, played games with.  Some of you I’ve never met face-to-face. All of you have made me laugh.

I thought about where you are, or what you like, what music you listen to, or what you like to eat.  The words you hate, the games you enjoy.  Some little shiny thing about you that I can hold to the light, that makes you, you, makes you memorable to me so that when you wish me well, I know exactly who to picture.

I know exactly who to thank.

How I won the Super Bowl* (or a Happy Birthday to the Boy)

January 20, 1989, roughly 10:30 am.  Picture me sitting in a room, utterly slobberknocked.  My husband has just kissed me on the forehead and gone off to “get some sleep” he said.  Get some sleep?  What about me?  I’ve been awake for twenty-six hours and this is all I get?

Actually, what I got was a 5 pound, 14 ounce package of energy and sweetness that would change my life forever.

The Boy arrived at 10:14 am.  I remember seeing his little face for the first time–his eyes wide open, looking right at me.  I was shocked by the intensity.  A few minutes later a nurse whisked him away, my husband left, and I was alone in an empty room with all this discarded equipment, feeling like I’d just played ten hours of pro football.

Best day of my life.

Fast forward twenty-five years.  Zip past the infancy, the toddler-hood, the childhood that flowed into early adolescence without a hiccup.  The teen years, years of homeschooling, learning to drive, part-time jobs.  Then college, then a first real job.  You could pack it all into a two-hour movie.  Piece of cake.

Last week my husband and I attended an open house at the place where the Boy works.  Throughout the evening, several of his co-workers, including his bosses, took the time to tell us how much they thought of him, how creative he was, what a nice guy he was.  All very gratifying, as well as reassuring in today’s job market. Exactly what every parent hopes to hear.  At one point, the founder of the company jokingly asked me what I had fed him for breakfast, as though how the Boy turned out had anything to do with me.

And that’s the point.  Beyond the love we offered unconditionally, beyond the boundaries we set (and constantly negotiated), who the Boy is now has more to do with who he was when he arrived:  eyes wide open, curious, imaginative, tenacious, persistent, and with a sense of humor.  He loved music and words and laughing, right from the start.

And we are the better for him, his father and I.  He has taught us far more than we ever thought possible to learn.

The Boy leaving for Africa, wearing all his cool clothes

His bags are packed, he’s leaving for Africa, wearing all his cool clothes.

The music that inspired a wish to go to Africa in the photo above.

*NOTE:  I didn’t really.  It’s a metaphor.  The Super Bowl took place two days later.  The 49ers won.  But there was much rejoicing in our house, all the same.

Shine a light

Tom with fire.jpg

My brother and his trusty Bic lighter.

The boy in the photo above is my brother Tom.  My mother named him Thomas, but we all called him Tommy.  At seventeen he dubbed himself Tomas (pronounced toe-mas, accent on the second syllable).  He took to wearing sunglasses and being quietly mysterious.  It was the first of many personas he would try on for size while looking for how he fit in the world.

It wasn’t easy for him, figuring it out.  He had a handicap from the start: Youngest of seven; born colicky, and needing a lot of soothing in a busy, boisterous family. He was often lost in the fray.

At two he fell through the heating vent in the bedroom floor, bumped accidentally by another brother as they jumped on my parents’ bed.  He landed in the dining room below, barely missing the table. Astonishingly, other than scaring the hell out of us, and knocking the wind out of himself, he was fine.

When he was three, I dumped scalding hot food on him.  Also an accident.  A pressure cooker containing what was meant to be our dinner exploded when I tried to lift the lid.  Tommy was standing by my side.  I was blown backwards, while lava-hot meat and potatoes shot straight up from the pot and rained down on his back.  I can’t remember how long he was in the hospital, but I do remember feeding him ice cream there.  The scars never went away.

After that he managed to make it through the rest of his childhood and adolescence with only the usual bumps and scrapes.  But he was always kind of quiet and a little aloof.  He liked to climb trees where he would sit for hours looking out at the world.  I asked him a few times what he thought about up there, but he wouldn’t tell me.  I think he was dreaming what life could be.

Tommy lived with me three times in my life, beginning when he was Tomas at seventeen.  I lived in Colorado then.  He wanted to finish his last year in high school somewhere other than where he was born.  We joined the local Y and worked out together, ran around the indoor track together, then went for donuts afterwards.  He wore his sunglasses and skipped classes and shared falafel with the homeless guys who hung out in the park.  At the end of the year he went back to my mother.

The next time he came to live with me I had just moved to Rhode Island.  He slept in my basement and got a job as a cook in a nursing home within walking distance of my apartment.  Eventually he met someone, and moved in with her.  He got a job at Electric Boat and learned how to weld the seams of atomic submarines.  In his down time he helped my husband and I build our house.

He had a baby with the woman he lived with, a boy who looked a lot like him.  He took photos and put them in an album where he wrote things like from father to son and, a man with song and dance not to mention poise across the pages. Then the woman took the baby out of state and had Tom sign a paper relinquishing his paternal rights.  He signed it because “it was what she wanted”, but it broke his heart to do so.  He never saw his son again.

He tried to fill the hole by being a fabulous uncle to his nephews.  He took them for walks and held their hands and watched cartoons with them.  He listened to their dreams and understood.

The last time Tom lived with me his life had begun to unravel.  By then he’d been diagnosed with a disease that would increasingly stiffen his spine and cause him pain.  A few days after he moved in with us, he simply stopped going to work.  He was tired of smacking his head on the insides of the submarines he was welding.

When I turned 35 Tom told me that I was old, being just 5 years from 40, as though 40 was near to the end of it all.  He must have believed that, since he took himself out of the equation at 33.  I’ve written about that choice in a more oblique form elsewhere on this blog.

Today is Tommy’s birthday.  By his thinking he would be old.  To the rest of my siblings–Amy, Kathy, Jaime, S.K.–and myself, he is still and will always be the youngest, the most fragile of us all who, nevertheless, keeps us buoyed and connected to one another by the memory of his life.

Happy Birthday, little brother.  Tonight the light in my window shines for you.

Uncle Tommy with my the Boy, taken two weeks before he left us on our own.

Uncle Tommy with my Boy, taken two weeks before he died.

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille. . . .

It’s my birthday today.  Most of my adult life I have been less than thrilled with birthdays (outside the great excuse for eating lots of chocolate cake).  On my twenty-first birthday I happened to pick up an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, which just happened to have an article – swear to God! – about how physically, it’s all downhill after twenty one.

But life is nothing, if not an interesting journey, right?  This morning I woke up, and in my still dream-fogged brain, this thought occurred to me:  I am not so much getting older, as I am getting more practice at living well and good and happily (most of the time. . .or at least, a proportionately larger percent of the time).  I credit my friend Bob Lee as the reason for this new insight.  He posted a birthday message to me last night that said, Happy 21st again! You must be so good at having those birthdays now. It must have sunk in while I was sleeping.

So, yeah.  Happy Birthday to me!  I am the star of my day today.

The 'Moose hat" picture explained: This was at a fancy dress party (costume party here in the US) at the Fforde Ffiesta June, 2012.  I was 'Moose' Havisham (a combo of Transient Moose and Miss Havisham who are both characters in Jasper Fforde books.  I won first place.

The ‘Moose hat” picture explained: This was at a fancy dress party (costume party here in the US) at the Fforde Ffiesta June, 2012. I was ‘Moose’ Havisham (a combo of Transient Moose and Miss Havisham who are both characters in Jasper Fforde books. I won first place.

It is also my sister’s birthday today.  We are not twins, but we are near twins.  Irish twins, some people tell us, as we are one year apart to the day.  Sharing a birthday was not always easy for us.  Kids do not like sharing birthday gifts, which was something we occasionally had to do.  And we have very different personalities and interests.  About the only trait we have in common is stubbornness, so you can guess how well we got along.

To add to our illusion of our twin-ness, my mother dressed us alike until we revolted.

To add to the illusion of our twin-ness, my mother dressed us alike until we revolted.

But we are grown-ups now, we get along really well and enjoy each other’s company when we can spend time together.  And we never, ever have to share birthday gifts anymore.  Which is good, because she is getting lobster and tequila for her birthday, neither of which I like and one of those things I’m allergic to.  And this is what I got today for my birthday, because I am an avid Dr. Who fan.

Tardis 2 web sz

Care to guess what I plan on keeping in my Tardis?

So, here’s to me and here’s to my birthday twin.  May we live our lives guided by love.

Cheers, y’all!