Permanent ink

August 26, 2016

I am writing this somewhere over Colorado. The Flight Tracker screen shows that we will arrive at John Wayne Airport in 2 hr. 06 min. I can’t wait to see my sister who will pick me and my wife and my best friend from college up for a long weekend in Newport Beach – her home since January.

birthday-club

Birthday party of four. (Photos by Addison Ore)

My calendar tells me that in 72 hours I will arrive at 60. I thought I was okay about it. Okay as in not freaked out or depressed but in the days leading up to the Big Six-Oh, I have found myself tearing up easily. Not necessarily sad, just emotionally tender.

I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot, so maybe that has something do with it. My father died at 79 and my mother died at 70. I’m really not being morbid, but I’ve always had it in my head that I, too, would die at 70. It’s probably the writer in me – what a gut wrenching story that would make, right? I think 70 used to seem so very far away but now that it’s on my radar, I am thinking that I really don’t want to write that story.

The absence of my parents has been a strong presence in my life for the past 14 years. It’s a bit like the undertow of the ocean. Sometimes I’m barely aware of it, other times I’m almost pulled under by it.

I suppose it’s rather cliché to ponder one’s own mortality at 60, but that is where I find myself in Seat 12E today. Lately, I’ve been looking at my life like one of those stupid slideshows that Facebook creates (why?) from time to time. I see quick images from my past – my high school graduation, a family vacation in Sandbridge, my first (really dumpy) apartment in Annandale, VA. I see joyous things – the births of my niece and nephew – and hard things – the breakup of my longtime relationship. And I see my failures much more clearly than my triumphs.

I also hear random memories – the sound of people playing touch football outside my apartment window on a brilliant fall Sunday afternoon while I float in and out of a nap resting by my partner. I can hear the distant humming of a small plane in flight. I am probably 23 or so. I can smell that day – burning leaves in the distance. I can taste that day – a honey crisp apple.

apple

Memories of my moment.

I thought about that day the first time I read The Hours by Michael Cunningham. There is a passage in that brilliant novel that always stands me still. Clarissa, one of the central characters, is preparing for a dinner party in honor of her dearest friend and former lover Richard, who is dying from AIDS. She recalls a day almost 30 year ago when she and Richard were together.

I remember one morning getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know that feeling. And I…I remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more… never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then.” the-hours-book

That afternoon was my moment.

I’ve been blessed with an abundance of moments since then but that was the crystalline pure singular moment before I knew of death and grief and my own failings.

I just finished watching Everything is Copy in flight, a documentary about the writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, written and directed by her son, Jacob Bernstein. It reveals a total woman – good, bad and wickedly funny. The title comes from something Ephron’s mother, a Hollywood screenwriter, always said to her kids growing up – “Everything is copy,” – meaning that everything that happens to you is fair game to write about.

nora-ephron

The late great Nora Ephron.

Ironically, the one thing that Ephron, who died in 2012, never wrote about was her illness – a serious blood disease that was diagnosed in 2006 and later developed into leukemia. Many of her closest friends were shocked to learn that she had been sick for so long. Ephron had spent her career writing about her life – her parents, her divorces and even her breasts.

In the documentary, her son reflects on why his mother didn’t share something so essential.

I think at the end of my mom’s life, she believed that not everything is copy – that the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away – the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything as copy as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the way to control the story was to make it not exist. 

I am fascinated that one of the most prolific and successful memoirists of our time was able to conceal such an intimate part of her life until her death. Ephron was oh so very clever, though, and in some ways wrote her own eulogy at the end of her final novel I Remember Nothing, published two years before her death, which included a list of What I Won’t Miss and What I Will Miss.

You can read both lists here but it is the list of things she will miss that made me tear up on my flight. It’s just a short inventory but it is so lyrically beautiful in its simplicity. It includes, of course, her husband and her sons but also butter and Paris. It includes taking a bath and one for the table. And pie.

Her list made me think of my own list. I’m not copying but I’m down with Paris and pie, too. And scrawling my list on my ever handy writing pad was a timely exercise in gratitude.

writing-pad

Musings from 40,000 feet.

What I Will Miss

Joy

My sister

Rain

Thunderstorms

Kittens

The gloaming

Wine

Looking at the wine list

Pouring my wife another glass of wine

Dolphins

Lightning bugs

Frank Sinatra

Newsprint on my fingers from the Sunday NY Times

Independent films in tiny theaters

Communion

Pens

Pencils

Paper

Postcards

The sound of a foghorn

The sound of good friends laughing at the dinner table

The sound of crunching leaves on a fall walk

College football

Holy Week

Palm trees

Watching my wife cut up vegetables

Pizza

Sushi

Kathy Ausen’s chocolate chip cookies

Speaking bad Italian in Italy

joy

Postscript: I made it to Newport Beach and I made it to 60. So far, so good. I’ve blown out a lot of candles on a lot of birthday desserts lately and my wish has been consistent. In fact, my wish has become my mantra for this next chapter of my life. It’s short and it’s sweet and I want to keep it in front of me every day along the way. So I gave myself a little birthday present – a tattoo – as a reminder.

Nora Ephron’s mother was right – everything is copy. And I don’t want to miss a moment.

joy-tattoo

 

getting-my-tattoo

What could go wrong?

 

birthday-cake

Sparkly wishes, sparkly days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My mother always made me feel special on my birthday. Every year she picked out the perfect Barbie doll, the best stuffed animal, the prettiest bracelet. When I look back on my birthdays as a kid, it’s not so much a particular gift or image that I remember most, it’s a feeling, how the people I love, especially my mom, made me feel important.

For years, my mom hung a Happy Birthday sign above the sink in our kitchen, chunky letters in every color of the rainbow strung together. It was the first thing I’d see when I came downstairs from my bedroom. As I stood sleepy-eyed in my pajamas, she’d sing “Happy Birthday” in a country-western twang with such passion – and volume – even though she doesn’t have the best singing voice. She still calls my sisters and me on every birthday and sings to us. I always let her call go to voicemail because I like to play the message over and over; it makes me smile.

What also made my birthdays so special every year as a kid was being able to design my own birthday cake. We went to a bakery called Mr. Baker, where your senses were greeted with the scent of vanilla icing whenever you stepped through the door. I loved the ritual of going with my mom to pick up my birthday cake and riding home with it sealed in a traditional white cake box. The anticipation of waiting to eat it drove me crazy. At age 36, I have not outgrown that and probably never will.

I took my birthday cake seriously as a kid – and still do. I had obsessions with Snoopy and Garfield when I was a child, so naturally they ended up on a lot of my cakes during my early childhood. I can still picture my double-layer cake with Garfield drawn on the top of it. It was my fifth or sixth birthday, and my whole family was gathered in the dining room, the lights dim and golden. My mom’s face glowed in birthday candlelight as she walked toward me with my Garfield cake, and everyone started to sing “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears before I could blow out the candles. I ran to my room and threw myself down on the bed, burying my face in my pillow. My mom scooped me up, and I cried into her chest unable to explain the tears.

Now, as an adult, I know the reason. It wasn’t just that my mom ordered me the perfect Garfield cake; it was that everyone I loved was gathered in the same room to celebrate me, my life. That birthday was the first time that I recognized what it means to be truly loved and cared about.

I carried that same feeling with me throughout the day on Wednesday as I celebrated my 36th birthday. All day I felt surrounded by so much love from the moment I first opened my eyes and saw my husband smiling back at me. Sweet text messages and phone calls trickled in throughout the day, each birthday wish touching my heart. After the tough couple of months I’ve been going through, it felt good to truly feel joyful for one day.

My husband can’t cook, but he’s great at ordering takeout. When I walked into our kitchen on the morning of my birthday, he had set a table for two with a Chick-fil-A biscuit and golden hash browns waiting for me — my twice a year guilty pleasure. He went into work a little later that morning so we could eat breakfast together. It was a simple gesture, but it felt grand to me.


Later that afternoon, two of my dear friends treated me to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants. When I arrived, they were seated in a booth with a small flower pot of yellow Gerbera daisies on the table and the biggest balloon I had ever seen attached to it with spirals of multicolored ribbon. I shrieked with glee when I saw it — and teared up a little, too. Those little touches sure made this birthday girl feel special. I left our lunch that day with my heart full — and my face sore from laughing so much. Good friends always know what our hearts need.


Afterwards, I went for a stroll in the woods with my dog Molly, and as I walked among the towering pines and the wisteria in bloom, I paused and looked up, taking it all in, this vast and beautiful world.  My eyes, my senses, my heart — they felt wide open. In the middle of the woods, this place that I cherish, my daily haven, I felt a deep connection to the universe. Among the rubble of winter’s fallen trees and bare branches, new life was unfurling all around me. Birds chirped. Four monarch butterflies danced in a figure eight near me. Wisteria’s delicate lavender flowers clung to their vine. I thought about these last two months and all the grief that has consumed me, and I realized even in the midst of sorrow there are gifts. You just have to open your eyes, and your heart to see them.


When I got home, there was a card waiting from me from my best friend Addison, who I share this blog with. The cover of the card pictures a cluster of cars, traveling in different directions, and a young girl on a bike looking over her shoulder while pedaling away from them. “I like to think that this is you pedaling even further past the grief that began this year,” she wrote. “You’re looking back a wee bit but pedaling forward to your next adventure.”


I love that analogy. It’s always a comfort when those we love can see a future beyond our grief. Reading Addison’s words gave me hope. Yes, I’m still glancing back at the past as I weather this season of change, but deep in my heart I believe the best is yet to come. Birthdays are a perfect way to mark a new beginning.


That night my oldest sister, brother-in-law and two nephews sang “Happy Birthday” to me via FaceTime – a virtual birthday party. Hearing my sweet nephews’ voices in the chorus of adults made me laugh as they sang with such fervor. This time there weren’t any tears, just laughter and gratitude. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and made a wish. I wished for joy, but after I blew out the candles, and opened my eyes, I realized I already have it.

Rear view mirror

True in my experience.

True in my experience.

Last week I wrote about my commute to work. Okay, it might have been more like whining than writing, but it’s my blog and I’ll whine if I want to.

It was all in good fun and some of you seemed to enjoy it. However, I unintentionally wounded my dear wife’s feelings a bit and need to make amends.

She felt like my blog title, Hell on Wheels, was misleading and might make unsuspecting folks think that she had forced me into making a 90 minute round trip commute each work day.

In actuality, the title refers to me and the crazy adventures I have inside my car and my head every day on I-40. You see, some days I can be hell on wheels.

And I gently reminded said dear wife that anyone who has met me for just five minutes would know that no one ever makes me do anything I don’t want to do. In fact, the mere idea of it makes me giggle.

Do I look like you could tell me what to do?

Do I really look like you could tell me what to do?

Anyway, I just want to make an addendum to last week’s post and note that each morning, my wife goes out and heats up my car so when I’m ready to leave my Soul is warm and toasty.

She walks me to my car (she leaves for work a few minutes later) and carries my coffee and gym bag while I schlep my work bag, lunch and other sundry other items I seem to need every day. (Note: Sundry is a fine word that should be used more often.)

No frost for me!

No frost for me!

That’s another snag about a long commute – you have to pack like you’re leaving for Europe because there’s no running home if you forgot something.

Then she stands in the doorway and waves sweetly as I drive out of sight.

And at the end of the day, that is why all roads lead to home.

joy-road-sign