I used to make sure to mark my birthday with a journal entry, now a tradition more honored in the breech. So what! Life does funny things to us, we go in odd and scattered directions, which we could call following our noses, being open to being buffeted into new patterns or chaos. So what! I feel today like someone who has become a sage, or thinks he might be, just because he has aged. (Isn’t it cool how much age makes up the spelling of sage?)
I’m dancing around the big hurt, the big burden. Today, I turned 69. “69 and I’m mighty fine,” or some variation, I sing-say to myself. People wish they had been twins. I’m blessed that I was, am, whatever you say when the other of you is dead. “Let his memory be a blessing to you,” Jews say. Maybe the only appropriate thing someone can say, besides “I’m so sorry,” when somebody you loves shuffles off.
I had a reminder of that mortal coil business this week. Another Dave, David Dell, my stepfather and my mother’s second husband, the first one having left life at 53, ebbed away Wednesday morning, February 24. Around 3:00 or 3:30 in the morning. He had been slipping for the past five years, ever since his heart and breathing stopped for at least a minute, just two weeks after my brother’s death. Good thing Mom looked up, went out to the kitchen, and saw him slumped at the table. Good thing the medical staff at their retirement center came running. But it seems to have done brain damage. And maybe other things affected him. He started to lose short-term memory, got more easily confused. The week before he died, also a Wednesday at 3 AM, Mom heard him get up to go to the bathroom. Something told her to keep an ear on him. She dozed a half hour, and he still wasn’t back. She found all the lights on in the other rooms, found him standing at his clothes closet, located in his office. “What are you doing?” Mom asked. “Picking out a dress shirt for church,” he said. She reoriented him and got him back in bed.
Thank God I woke up this morning. I woke up at 6:45, just in time to mark the minute of my birth at 7:00, Ona half awake, wishing me a Happy Birthday, telling me as she always does, how much she loves me. I know she’s excited about her pandemic plans for my celebration. I know that Ethan and Julia will come by between 11:00 and noon, possibly bringing lunch. I know Ona and I will join Steve Kuusisto in teaching our Teenage Writers with Disabilities writing class via Zoom at 2:30. I know we have something special at 5:30 and something else at 9:00 with a steak dinner in-between. I know how loved I am.
I also know I woke with a marbled sadness within the happiness. I miss both Daves, especially my brother. But I do miss my stepfather, who lived a quiet, steady, gentle, thoughtful life, treating people and Nature with great love. He never sat in the seat of power. He never seemed to desire it. Just loved his first wife through parenting equally good-spirited children and then through years of her being ill and homebound. His last words to my mother, as she went around the end of the bed to get to his side, “Thank you, Sweetie.” Then he slowly sank to the floor, lay down, and felt the life drain out.
But I started to say I had this sadness because my brother Dave wasn’t here for our traditional call at 7:00. “Happy Birthday, Brother,” we’d say. “So glad we’re on this journey together.”
People worry about over-sentimentalizing things, being too gushy, too repetitive with the “I love you’s.” I’ve decided to hell with that. Go ahead and critique my life. I’ll take the chance of overdoing it.
I’m sure having quite a time just going straight at this, aren’t I? So let me go straight at it. This melancholia ran through me, completely mixed with the gratitude. I thought of ways, or more accurately, followed hunches to be with Dave as I went through my morning routine. I picked out a Mendelssohn Club recording of a concert called Touch the Angel’s Hand, named after a composition by someone we were in high school choir with, Cynthia Folio, and performed in 2002. My CD player rejected it. Perhaps mortality, decay, of the chemicals on the CD surface that held the data. So I then tried a recording from 2009. Much of it played, but I had to skip the Kyrie from Mozart’s C Minor Mass because of data errors. Was everything dying? Yes, in a word. Yes. But the Gloria was, well, glorious, and I decided to try the half-full approach, being grateful for every measure I could hear. Dave probably stood near me on the risers. He got me into this choir to start with. He was there. We were there together, flaws and data errors and all. Finally, breakfast over, it being time to shave, I picked something requiring less devoted attention; I streamed KFRC, San Francisco, his favorite station during the final months in his hospital bed at home, gradually losing one thing after another to ALS, but holding on to curiosity, engagement, and powerful love for dear life. In this way, I kept him with me this morning. We heard “Just You and Me, Simple and Free” by Chicago, “Michelle” by The Beatles, “Layla” (the original, long version with the mesmerizing piano at the end.) We heard, “We Built This City on Rock and Roll.” I couldn’t help joining in, singing and swaying in the kitchen. Music is a blessing. Friends are a blessing (I promise to call more of them this year.) Poetry and all good writing are blessings. Ona is a supreme blessing. My Mom. My sisters. All my family. All are blessings. And Dave. Both Daves. Their memories will always be blessings.