What I Want You to Know on My 39th Birthday

I sit outside under the shade of the carport on our back patio, enjoying the view of our newly sodded backyard. The sprinkler spins rhythmically. Ozzy runs through the falling water and rolls around on the green grass, delighting in the novelty of the changed landscape. A gentle breeze moves through the leaves of the orange tree, shaking loose the white flowers blooming around the buds of next year’s crop. I try to read a book but, as often happens these days, I am unable to make it through a whole chapter. So instead, I sip my beer and watch Ozzy play. You come in and out the house, at times wanting to run around with the dog and at others wanting to watch some mindless video on your device.

I think back to last May, soon after your mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. We were outside in the early evening, avoiding the heat of the house. I had been pulling weeds from the overgrown mess of a yard, and I had cleared a large enough area for us to toss a baseball back and forth and for you to take some swings with the bat. You were laughing and shouting when you had a good hit. I looked up at your mom, sitting under the carport where I am sitting now. She was weeping, quietly so as not to interrupt your joy. I knew she was seeing in her mind all the moments she would be missing in the years ahead.

It’s my thirty-ninth birthday. In anticipation for this day, my mom organized a birthday card onslaught. Starting a few weeks ago, I began receiving a steady trickle of birthday cards from relatives, friends, and acquaintances all over the globe, most of them bearing the phrase “Team Caleb” in the return line. I have no doubt more will arrive in the weeks ahead. Our fireplace mantle and the bookshelf nearby are full of cards.

My mom knew this first birthday without your mom would be hard. She knows she can’t keep the pain from hitting, but she can make sure there is a bubble of love and kindness to shield me from grief’s most vicious attacks. My mom’s thoughtfulness and her love for others is known far and wide, but this gesture is on another level. I did not expect to feel so much gratitude on this birthday.

It’s strange opening presents with just you and me here. For one thing, I don’t know when to open them. In the morning? Before we go out to dinner? Before bed? As with many decisions big and small that used to be made in tandem, the choice is now mine alone to make.

We do a Zoom meeting with my family in the late afternoon. My mom puts together a trivia game about me that I have helped her rig so that you will win. You get all the answers but one correct, and you take first place. Your pride and excitement are the best gift I will receive today.

I decide to open my presents after the Zoom but before dinner. Your uncle took you shopping a few weeks ago for one present, and then your mom’s lifelong friend consulted with you on a second gift. Both of them are games for us to play together: Connect 4 and Operation. You figured that the thing I enjoy most is playing with you. You know me well. We eat a birthday dinner at one of my favorite places, then come home to play a few games before bed.

A couple of days pass since my birthday. Tonight, as you are getting ready for bed, we start talking about your mom, and you start to draw a picture. You won’t let me see it, saying it looks too “derpy,” but you tell me it was a picture of the three of us on an airplane bound for Montana. I tell you that I had just been thinking about flying, and that it makes me sad to think that the three of us will never walk through an airport together and hop on a plane. I want to share my sadness and grief with you so you know that it’s normal to feel those things, but this reflection proves too heavy and it sends you into a long fit of crying. At one point, you say, “Six years was not enough time with Mommy!” That gets me crying with you. At the truth of that statement. At how you can be so perceptive of these things at your age. At how you can already put these feelings into words.

When your Mom was in the hospital, about a week before she died, the reality of her medical condition was starting to set in. We still did not know if she had days, weeks, or months to live, but we knew that it was unlikely to be a long time.

We talked about you and about how you are our legacy. We agreed that you are the best thing that either of us have ever accomplished in life. That you give our lives meaning. Your existence was the hardest thing for your mom to give up in this life, but it was also the fact that gave her greatest comfort. Because in you, her life had clear meaning and purpose.

It’s not fair to ask someone who has only taken six trips around the sun to carry all the meaning of two other lives who have taken many more, but that’s the way it works, I’m sorry to say. It’s how I give meaning to the lives of my parents and grandparents. It’s how my dad carried on the legacy of his birth father, who died at the age of 22 while working construction in Montana, and the legacy of his adopted father who taught him to fish and build things with his hands, and the legacy of his mother who, like me, found herself alone and caring for a young son when tragedy struck. It’s how your mom carried on the legacy of her parents and grandparents, and they did the same for theirs, and on and on and on.

Our lives, on their own, amount to a few trips around the sun on a flying orb. We are small, statistically insignificant things. But we give each other meaning, and we help each other find it, too.

I wanted to write these things to you this morning, when these ideas seemed more focused and eager to come out. But you wanted to build a Lego set your cousin bought me for my birthday, one you helped her pick out as a bonus third present. I wanted to tell you no, to put it off for a few hours. But I saw the irony of writing about the meaning you give my life rather than spending my precious time with you. So, I focused on you and together we built the set, taking turns completing the numbered steps. Several times when it was my turn to build, you reached your arm up around my back and told me you love me, my reward for making the right choice.

So now I write this late in the evening. Because as much as it was the right decision to spend time in the moment with you, it is also important to me that I write these words so that they might find you someday: perhaps on a sunny April afternoon, as you sit and watch a child of your own play in the backyard while a light breeze pushes orange blossom scents in your direction.

One Comment on “What I Want You to Know on My 39th Birthday

  1. I can smell the orange blossoms and see a lego set project! Thanks for your gift of writing. ❤️


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