We need our anniversaries. They serve as guideposts so we can evaluate our lives. We have endured another year. We have navigated the murky waters flowing from then and bringing us to now. Each of our anniversaries evokes a version of the emotions which the initial event drew from us. The grief, the joy, the horror, the glee. What we felt then flows back into our conscious selves, morphed though it might be: Rounded stones worn smooth by the flow of water or sharp splinters dashed against the concrete and left to pierce the tender skin of our timid steps.
But our birthday draws special memories because we mint the symbolism. We accumulate milestones of promises we make ourselves. “I’ll finish college before I’m 21,” we vow. “I’ll get my PhD before 30.”
Marry before I’m legal to drink.
Make my first million before forty.
I broke most of the commitments which I made to myself. I won’t recite them. I’ve forgotten most of them. I remember a few, of course; but they would bore you as intensely as they trouble me. It does not matter, really; the only importance of these plans is in their making, and in how we handle our disillusionment if we fail.
I truly cannot recall if this is my third birthday spent at Pigeon Point Lighthouse or my fourth. The sea stretches beyond the dark horizon. I could not see the sun set for the low mist. Pale grey deepened to indigo. We had no other sign. Now I sit in my customary chair in the corner of the kitchen. I’ve raised the window. I can hear the voice of my Pacific. She reminds me that time passes but she remains, steadfast, nurturing, calm.
I think about my son as the anniversary of my birth nears. If I could turn back time, I would urge him to take greater risks. I would let the tether go and encourage him to float. I thought I had given him the gift of license, but now I am not so sure. Whether or not I met the challenge which I set for myself of encouraging him to roam, I would do so with even greater force. If I could turn back time.
If I could turn back time, I’d tell him more about the beauty and less about the bogey man. I would quiet my own fears with a firmer hand. In fact, looking back, I daresay that I should have spoken not at all of my own terrors. Those of childhood loom large enough. I prided myself on being strong despite the suffering which I had endured. As I stand on the bridge of today looking back into the misty depths of yesteryear, I realize that I wore my pride rather more proudly than might have been prudent.
If I could turn back time, I would have made some practical changes too. When I headed north from Arkansas back to Missouri, I would have turned right at the interstate and replanted my son and myself in St. Louis. I had the great privilege of spending my childhood among people related to me by blood. I denied that to my son. He had a whole plethora of cousins in St. Louis, but I strapped him into his car seat and drove us and our belongings back to Kansas City from which I had more recently come.
I know why I avoided St.Louis. Though I pretended to be drawn back to Kansas City for a job, I could have gotten one just as easily four hours east. My true motivation lay in a misguided belief that returning to St. Louis meant admitting defeat. It didn’t matter. Everyone knew the extent to which I had faltered. In fact, they loved me anyway, and would more than likely have welcomed my son and me in that unique way that only family knows.
If I could turn back time, I’d get more help with raising my son, more often, and more willingly. I would ask more questions, of more diverse people, and listen to their advice. I might even follow what they recommended. In the very least, I would make note of it, and weigh their suggestions against my own instincts.
What did I know of children? I gave birth two months before my 36th birthday. I had three and a half decades of living outside of parenthood. My only information came from an alcoholic father, a desperate mother, and distant siblings who seemed too perfect for me to even approach in performance. I did not fear falling short of their excellence so much as being exposed for the fraud that I knew myself to be.
If I could turn back time, I would set the calendar long before my son’s birth. In fact, I might turn the clock all the way back to my own. Labor Day, 1955. I would set the clock for a minute before 9:05 p.m., the exact hour when I eased myself from my mother’s practiced body. I would start my own life anew. I would live with more grace, and more joy, and more serenity. I would eat more chocolate, climb more trees, and stand more often in the spring rains with my face lifted heavenward.
Every year as my birthday approaches I find myself yearning to write a letter to my son. This longing first rose in my breast in 1998. I had been given six months to live on Valentine’s Day that year, and I had not expected to celebrate my 43rd birthday. Because of a shrewd and confident infectious disease specialist, I surprised everyone but him by living. However, as September approached, the outcome of his treatment had not yet been assured. I still feared that my son would be an orphan before Christmas.
So I composed a letter to him, though I did not give it to him. As I recall that first missive had far too much rank sentiment. In fact, anything I could say would be so maudlin even now that a twenty-seven year old young man might judge my words to be unreadable.
If I could write the perfect letter to my son on the anniversary of my birth, I would tell him that giving birth to him evoked in me an extraordinary sense of wonder. But I had so little faith in my ability to nurture him that I sometimes fled outside in the night and wrapped my arms around myself. I scolded myself. I bargained with the Universe to keep on track. I did not trust myself. I did not believe in myself.
I believed in my son, though. I had faith in his resilience, his humor, his gentleness, and his intelligence. Even today, I turn to my son for an explanation of anything which confounds me. I think he got his cleverness from my brother Frank. Wherever that gene originated, my son received it. I saw the keenness of his mind, and I relied on it. I rely on it still. I often fear that doing so places an unreasonable burden on him, but nonetheless, I do.
I have written dozens of letters to my son. My words seem feeble. I want to tell him to sing more often, and to take more chances, and to put aside any fears that he might have. I want to urge him to embrace the virtues which I see in him, and to forgive any mistakes that he might believe he has made. Of all my failures, not forgiving myself casts the deepest shadow.
Tomorrow I will walk on the cliff above the Pacific and contemplate what I can say to my son on the anniversary of my birth. I’ll be sixty-three on Wednesday. For twenty-seven years, I’ve been searching for the right words to give him. Perhaps the sea can tell me. I am prepared to listen.
It’s evening, on the second day of the fifty-seventh month, of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.