What to wish for on my birthday
FRIDAY, April 2, 2010 – It was around twelve-thirty when Eamonn shuffled into the bedroom. My birthday had begun a half hour before, but that wasn’t why he was there. It was the same nightmare that had brought him to my room the night before. He was being followed by a man in a car who was just about to grab him. Come on, big guy, climb in! It’ll all be okay.
The next morning everything was not okay. Eamonn said he felt awful, because he hadn’t bought me a real present. All he had was a handmade birthday card. But son, that’s the only thing I wanted. A hand-written card or a drawing. Nothing else. But he was still ashamed. I’d already bought the big present from the boys: a karaoke box. It still had to be gift-wrapped. ‘How about if you go off and take care of that, Eamonn, and then everything will be fine.’
So the day began right. With coffee, apple juice, cheese and crackers, the morning paper, and the presents. The karaoke box was beautifully wrapped in a plastic supermarket bag. Two cards: Eamonn’s finished days ago, Sander’s late last night. Both equally touching.
Eamonn: Happy B-Day! Thank you for reaching your 45th year and 9 years of a good father. Sincerely, Eamonn J Nolan. Complete with paw prints from Bodhi and Elsa and a drawing of an exploding birthday card.
Sander drew an imaginary iPad with the enthusiastic text: Introducing iPapa. The best dad you could ever imagine. Available forever.
What more could a father wish for? Well, maybe a real present … and that was the karaoke box. It should be fun: singing together plus a bit of verbal horsing around in the living room. But even that’s not important compared with the anticipation of the day that lies before us. What will it be like? Lying there in bed, an uncomfortable feeling came over me: the fact is that this is the first birthday without Jenn in nineteen years.
Sander took Elsa out. Eamonn made his own breakfast. I went off to the gym, did the shopping and ran four loads of laundry. I always change the beds on Friday. So, today, as well. No sweat. Why had it always been such a chore and why hadn’t I realized how simple it could be to play a more equal role in the housekeeping? Just a question of being a bit more observant.
Picked up the yellow Mini Cooper. All set to go. It needed a new battery, that was all. We drove to the Amsterdam Woods, careening down the road with all the windows open. Spent a couple of hours climbing trees at Fun Forest: three modern Tarzans following the zip lines high over streams and tall brushwood. Just the right activity for three guys like us and all the time Jenn was there in our thoughts. She had a fear of heights, but last summer she’d given it a try.
Transferring from climbing tree track 5 to track 6, we were so high up that a couple of times even I had to swallow hard. We asked ourselves whether Mom would have been up to it. What she would have done. In any case, she was with us today, sailing along high in the trees. I was in the lead and when I turned around, I saw how at the other end of the cable Eamonn was getting some pointers from Sander, how the two of them were a team, as they stood there exchanging tips. Was I seeing how Jenn was watching over them or was it my imagination? Was I calling up thoughts that were simply not possible.
The wish is father to the thought.
I barely answered the phone today and only responded to a couple of emails and text messages. It was kind of friends to think of me, especially today. But I wanted us to be together, just the three of us. That idea was immediately appropriated by Eamonn who announced that on his birthday he wasn’t going to invite his friends over, because he would rather do something together, just the three of us. We’ll see how things work out; but there’s no denying that today was intimate and close and I want to hang onto that feeling as long as possible. Without the outside world.
During dinner (at our favorite neighborhood restaurant), Sander found it necessary to correct me. I proposed a toast, to a terrific birthday, with terrific sons, and terrific activities, and all that in spite of the huge sense of emptiness because Mom wasn’t there. According to Sander, I shouldn’t have said that. It was unnecessary. Let’s just live in the moment was his message. I took the hint and apologized. Still, it was great the way he got his message across.
‘And yes, Eamonn,’ I said before he asked. ‘You can sleep in my bed tonight.’ He beamed. But instead of the usual back-scratch, which generally took place in silence, he had a special request. ‘I want something different this time.’ Alongside a back-scratch he wanted to hear stories ‘about you and Mom’. He snuggled down to listen. I began.
How we saw each other for the first time at the airport in Brussels. How Mom appeared in the arrivals hall, after her name had been called: her wallet had been found on the floor of the plane. How I brought along a red rose and how she gave me three Dutch kisses on the cheek. I described how we went first to Bruges and then to Antwerp. We had dinner at a steakhouse where she ordered a salad and told me she was a vegetarian. How later that evening we kissed passionately. I didn’t elaborate on how passionately.
How Mom threw out every single thing in my fridge, how she taught me authentic American recipes like cheese bread with paprika and popcorn in a pan with olive oil, and my introduction to broccoli.
Eamonn had another request number. Tell me about the Kitchen-Aid again. It’s a good story. It’s all about how that first year in New York I’d bought a huge mixer for Jenn who had just graduated from culinary school. How I’d lugged that huge cardboard box all through SoHo, onto the PATH-train towards Hoboken and then had to walk the last five blocks. The result was magnificent: Jenn was so overwhelmed by my present that she burst into tears.
Eamonn gazed at the wall, following the images that my words called up.
Later that evening Sander went to pieces. As usual, the symptoms were anger and frustration. We’ve seen it before, but this time things had been churning through his head for too long. While that morning he hadn’t wanted to talk about Mom, now she’s the only subject on his mind – zooming endlessly around in his head. One thing led to another and he ended up distraught and mired down in despair.
Here again, a back massage did wonders. Later that evening a glass of whisky was my sole companion. On the rocks. An excellent Friday, this Good Friday. Fucking forty-five.