I blew out my candles (placed carefully in the shape of a smiley face) in a pecan pie last night. Thankfully there weren’t really forty-three of them or we might have had to call the fire department.
It was a nice birthday, as far as such things go. I mean, there was work, but I like my job and my boss brought in a chocolate cake so I had that for breakfast which felt mildly rebellious.
Once upon a time, wearing ripped jeans and a motorcycle jacket and staying out past curfew felt rebellious, but those days are so far in the past they’re no longer really visible in the rearview mirror.
There was an odd sort of sense that I was shifting in time last night… my daughter’s boyfriend invited us to his house, and the two of them made us a delightful dinner with my favorite things. The kids put the candles in my pie and carried it to me, singing. It was wonderful, truly, but I felt somewhat cockeyed for a second. For so many (many, many) years, I’ve been the one planning and making the birthday dinners, lighting the candles, initiating the obligatory belting out of the birthday song. The role reversal was cool, for sure, but it just felt a bit odd for a second. Three of my kids are adults now. When did that happen?
The night before my birthday, on Mother’s Day, my uncle died. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, but I cried over the loss. When I was young, we spent a lot of time at my parents’ cabin up north. (That might be a Michigan thing, “Up north.” Basically, it means anywhere above the Zilwaukee bridge, not necessarily in the upper peninsula.) This particular cabin was about two and a half hours from the house I grew up in. In the winters, we would go up on the weekends to head out snowmobiling, but the summers were the best time. Memorial weekend, Labor Day weekend, and several weekends in between we would go north and family would come in for the duration. The cabin was small but the yard was big and when we ran out of room for bodies to sleep on a couch or the floor, tents would pop up in the yard or relatives would drop a rusty tin can-style camper in the front yard. With my siblings and their families, aunts, uncles, and cousins, it would be nothing to have forty relatives or more hanging out for the weekend. The uncle that passed on Sunday was my dad’s closest brother and best friend. They were two peas in a pod; the same mannerisms, same expressions, same grunts of affirmation or disgust. Uncle Vern was always there on those weekends. He and my dad would get up before sunrise to start the massive breakfast for the family, scrambling a hundred eggs and thirty pounds of potatoes while the rest of us woke slowly, took turns with the only bathroom, and stumbled outside in the early morning light. Plates in hand, we’d wait around until food was done then sit in folding chairs on the lawn, reminiscing, planning, laughing. I’m sad that those days are gone, and I’m sad that so many of the people who were there have passed away now.
And I’m not trying to dwell on the past or anything like that. The right now time is good. It’s solid. Every day holds some measure of joy, and my family is happy and growing. We’re making our own memories. But there’s a weird ache in my gut every time I realize most of the people who shared those days with me are gone. There are very few people alive who remember the same things I do. I have no siblings to reminisce with. Nobody else who remembers Christmas mornings, sitting at the top of the stairs while our parents fixed coffee and opened a can of Tab before we were allowed to run into the family room to see the tree and presents. I sort through photos and laugh at a memory, then remember the faces in the picture have all passed away now. Those weekends up north at the old cabin were pure happiness. I miss them, and the people who shared them with me.
Last Friday, I left work early and spent three hours at a local tattoo shop. My left forearm is now decorated with the ink of a memorial for my lost family. It turned out beautiful. I thought long and hard about what symbols to choose for each family member. My dad’s was pretty easy: a sunflower. He always had a garden out back, and bordered the perimeter of the vegetable plot with tall, vibrant sunflowers. To this day, every time I see a sunflower, I immediately think of my dad. For my sister, I chose a sun/moon. She used to buy all sorts of decorations with the sun/moon on them. Something about it really spoke to her, so I chose a bright, happy style with crinkly eyes in the face of the sun and rosy cheeks. Even the face of the moon sports a tolerant smirk. My brother loved all things Viking: history, television, exaggerated lore, random facts. For him I chose a raven. Odin, the Viking god, has two ravens, thought to represent “memory” and “thoughts.” Seemed fitting, to me.
The words are impossible to see in a photo because they wrap around my arm, but they are lyrics from a song called “Less than Whole:”
“The grey clouds have departed
The stars light up the night
Now I can see through darkness
The river shines with life
I’ve waded through the water
My soul is comin’ clean
I’ve held my breath forever
But now it’s time to breathe.”
Here I am, another year in the rearview mirror.
And I’m finally breathing.