Hanging on the doorframe in our kitchen is a “birthday calendar,” a simple arrangement of 12 narrow vertical pages bound together at the top, one for each month, displaying at a glance the birthdays of family and friends that we have entered. It’s been there for 40 years, its edges curling forward from the ravages of time. We’ve added wedding anniversaries, too, as our kids began to have them.
When my husband’s father died, we thought to erase his name, but it was written in ink, so we left it, as we then did with deaths of all our parents, feeling their spirits funnel into in our on-going lives.
When one of their birthdays appears on the birthday calendar, my husband does the math, remarking how old they “would have been” this year. As of today’s date, my father would have been celebrating his 95th.
This past Monday was my husband’s birthday. We don’t really care about our own birthdays anymore. They seem to represent reminders of aches and pains that we didn’t have on last year’s birthday. They herald the indication that body parts don’t function as they should and some are in need of alteration, or even replacement. We don’t care if we receive gifts. Been there; done that. It’s cause enough for celebration that the other is still there when we wake up in the morning.
But my husband feigns anticipation of his birthday to our grandchildren. I heard him ask a week in advance, “Are you excited for my birthday?” People only under the age of 6 take this question seriously, everyone else meeting it with an exaggerated eye roll.
This year, I heard him tell to anyone listening that his birthday hadn’t been the same since his grandmother died. He had to repeat the remark several times before anyone even pretended to take the bait and ask, “Why is that?,” where upon he replied that when he was a kid, his grandmother always gave him $5 on his birthday.
We always remember larger events that may coincide with our birthday. We will forever remember that on my husband’s 67th, a cool, sunny April day filled with the excitement of the Boston Marathon, a senseless horror occurred.
The world watched, stunned in disbelief, as bombs began exploding. Unsuspecting people at one moment in the thralls of camaraderie were suddenly killed and maimed. The day turned upside down. Ambulances raced victims to hospitals, law enforcement jerked into action, the streets filled with confused, terrorized people.
In my shop I had only just heard the news myself when a dazed, young woman came in, saying she was afraid to go home. She wasn’t making sense, and began to weep, and after talking with her, I realized that “home” was near the bombsite; she turned and left, leaving her full cup of coffee on the counter. Wondering if she might have been in shock; I went out to find her, but she had disappeared.
I too, felt sickened. I put the “closed” sign on the door with no explanation, and drove home, although “home” didn’t feel so safe anymore.
But soon the birthday celebration ensued. It was a disorganized little event with people drifting in and out, which felt fine. The family was scattered, people’s schedules transected by ball games, sleeping babies, play dates of school vacation.
At the end of the evening after the last teenage grandson had walked out the door, my husband turned to me, opening his hand to display some folded dollar bills. “He told me he had seen my grandmother, and she said to give me this.”
We both stood there in tears, struck with how the world somehow always seems to pull itself into balance.
Susan S. Emerson is a regular columnist for the Times.