It was a typical divide and conquer evening, only made atypical by the milestone.
Our oldest turned 17 Wednesday.
Karry was on dance duty, which earned her a pilgrimage to Waynesburg to scoop up Emma and her friends, and put me, by default, in charge of wrapping presents and dinner prep.
I would not be Karry’s first-round pick for either chore. Under normal circumstances I’d be lucky to participate in these spring drills as a non-roster invitee.
Admittedly, neither task plays to my strengths (which, generally speaking, fall under a loose category that, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just call “Intangibles.”). Family gift openers have described my wrapping as “primitive,” though I prefer “possessing of a charming, child-like quality.” Regardless, as with most things I’m not particularly skilled at, I compensate with enthusiasm.
So, I flung myself into the task of paper-cladding the humble pile of middle-of-the-week birthday gifts, most of which were feverishly procured slash Amazon-ed within the previous 48 hours (as per family, um, tradition). I fished my emergency stash of Sunday Comics from the drawer of my old Areford Elementary teacher’s desk (that my Mom fished from the ruins of our old neighborhood school about 40 years ago). Snatched the tape from the top drawer of the overstuffed chest where we keep the bills and The Neglected Stacks. In desperation I went digging through The Neglected Stacks for a couple extra blank birthday cards, since we had procured a couple more gift cards than birthday cards, and it somehow felt slightly less lame if we didn’t stuff multiple gift cards into a single envelope.
While digging deep into one of the far left stacks, I slammed the breaks on my feverish search when I happened upon … buried treasure.
From … Toronto. Vancouver. San Antonio. Utah. San Francisco. Las Vegas.
Addressed to … Peter.
All from about 15 years ago. When he was 1-2 years old.
I was both taken aback, and taken back.
I totally forgot that the young parent version of myself used to write him postcards when I went on business trips. Forgot how much I hated leaving him and Karry in the days when miracles were more than a daily occurrence.
I just called home a few minutes ago and heard you saying, “Humpty Dumpty” – Mee Maw taught you that yesterday. And Mom told me that you walked 8 steps on your own. I am soooooo proud of you! Going three days without seeing you smile or hearing you chit-chat is too long.
It was a time machine to when the world was so much smaller … when we harvested simple moments of transcendence by the bushel.
I should be home tomorrow by 9:15 or so … hopefully you are still up. If not, I’ll put a kiss in my hand and put it on your head, unless you are sleeping with your butt in the air!
Yeah, he used to sleep sometimes with his knees under him, which made his butt stick up in the air. Whenever Karry or I would pass by his room and catch a glimpse, we’d call the other and just stand there, smiling in silence at the gift of him just … being. Reading my old words to the young him made me smile anew. And yeah, I remember putting kisses in my hand so I wouldn’t wake him. Sleep was a precious commodity for all involved back then.
Greetings from Vancouver. This is that place that mom showed you on the globe. I saw something today you would have found very cool. Out in the water in the bay I saw an airplane “driving on the water.” And it started driving fast and took off and flew up into the sky.
First time I’d ever seen a seaplane. And I experienced it through the awed eyes of my two year old who wasn’t there. As a wise person once wrote, you can only taste it for the first time once.
Greetings from Las Vegas! You would find lots here to draw your attention. At night you can hear lots of ‘woo woos.’
Woo woos = police cars. I’m not sure Vegas has been described so innocently before or since.
As I carry you with me wherever I go, I see these sites through your eyes.
In the stack were about 10 or so cards I sent over maybe a two-year-period.
At some point, I stopped writing them.
I’m not sure when. And I’m confident it wasn’t any sort of conscious act.
I remember reading a great essay that talked about The Last Time, and how we are seldom aware of The Last Time we’re experiencing something.
The last time you rock your child to sleep in your arms. The last time you read Goodnight Moon. The last time you play catch with your Dad.
The last time your Mom calls to wish you a happy birthday.
I don’t give myself credit for much, but I can honestly say that I think I’ve always possessed a keen sense of the passage of time. I used to journal a lot in those early days of parenthood. I knew that my future self would want to be reminded of all the daily amazings that drew ahs like fireworks and evaporated just as quickly. When I find myself feeling a little untethered, I’ll pluck an old journal from the shelf, and see what the life of the younger Us used to be like.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the people in my pages.
The miracles of the present age are of, um, a different vintage. When he wears pants at the dinner table? Minor miracle.
It’s tempting to believe that your children have always been the same person since birth. The cold fact is they are completely different people today than they once were. And they don’t care about those kids whose smaller clothes used to hang in their closets. The junior in high school doesn’t care that his two-year-old self used to run into my arms every time I came upstairs from work, or that his three-year-old self just had to pull his plastic lawn mower out of the garage and ‘mow’ beside me every time I cut grass, or the great pains he and I took to memorize the choreography to our favorite Wiggles routines. (Gooooo, Captain Go….). Those were gifts from someone other than the young man who now does donuts in the snow in the Wild Things parking lot.
Which brought me back to the small pile of gifts waiting impatiently.
I aborted my search for empty birthday cards.
Re-arranged the treasures in front of me back into a neat pile.
But instead of returning them to The Neglected Stacks, I wrapped the Sunday comics around them (with a charming, childlike quality.). Sealed them with Scotch tape. Tossed ‘em into the small mound.
Moved on to kitchen stadium, where I proceeded to slice a ½ dozen tiny bowls full of veggies, set off two smoke alarms and set one paper plate aflame while Wok-ing the hell out of Peter’s made-to-order-stir-fry-birthday dinner, whose deliciousness almost-but-not-quite made up for the fact that I didn’t put it in front of an impatient, famished table until 8:30 because I kinda’ forgot to slice the beef until the girls returned home from dance.
However, grace (i.e. rescue) came in the form of Emma’s from-scratch Oreo cupcakes, thoughtfully and lovingly made for a sibling whose legacy of giving her nothing but big-brother crap is now in its 13th season.
Karry placed a candle atop a cupcake, Emma turned out the lights, and I nearly ruined everything by going for harmony on the final Happy Birthday To You (a sweet, but ill-executed homage to my Dad’s birthday serenades of yore).
Then the room fell quiet, and the world stopped long enough for the guest of honor to take his sweet time in considering his birthday wish.
And in the silence, I wondered what the Dad who used to send postcards promising to put kisses in his hand for his sleeping baby boy might say to the one now sitting around a cluttered Tuesday night table staring, bewildered, at a newly-minted 17-year-old whose heart’s set on a Ford Mustang.
He whispered the only advice he could:
Write this down.