There is a photo on my dresser. It’s an old photograph. My wife sits at a table. Her arms are crossed. There’s a birthday cake in front of her.
The cake is seven-layer. Caramel. I drove all the way to Dean’s Cake House in Andalusia to buy that thing. Candles poke from the top. My wife wears a warm smile.
That was quite a day.
As a rule, photographs don’t do my wife justice. Her personality is too colorful for rolls of film.
Snapping a shot of her is a lot like trying to capture the Sistine Chapel on a cocktail napkin with a Bic pen.
Even so, that night I held a disposable camera while we sang “Happy Birthday,” using voices loud enough to affect weather conditions.
My wife’s mother placed the seven-layer cake before her. Her father and I kept singing like a duet of Labradors with chest colds.
My wife’s cheeks turned red. She showed a smile. I pointed the camera.
And for a hundred years, that photo has made me feel less alone.
Maybe it’s her smile. After all, people like us aren’t supposed to smile. At least not like she smiles.
We haven’t had exceptional careers—she worked food service, I stood on ladders.
Our bank account was decidedly shallow. Money wasn’t exactly growing on rose bushes. For suppers, we’d visit Kentucky Fried Chicken to lick other people’s fingers.
But we smiled a lot. She taught me to do that.
We bought cones of ice cream, using quarters from dashboard ashtrays. We sat in parking lots, listening to car radios. We talked until the wee hours. We chatted about life. About kids.
“How about Rose?” she said. “We ever have a daughter, I wanna name her Rose.”
“How about Willie?” I suggested. “I’ve always wanted a little red-headed stranger named Willie.”
We’ve done our share of growing up together. She has watched me lose more times than I’ve won. She’s hugged me when I didn’t deserve it. She listens. She cooked fried chicken when I once got laid off.
And if you ask me, we’ve had a full life. Real full. We’ve watched sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. Fireflies over ponds. We’ve played Go Fish on the kitchen table. We’ve done campfires, Waffle-House suppers, house-painting parties, and we’ve buried too many good animals.
And when doctors told us they found something irregular in her breast, we sat in a UAB waiting room. I quit eating, skipped suppers. I stared at ceilings, whispering things to God.
Months later, when doctors said it was benign, one of the first things I did was buy a seven-layer cake in Andalusia. Caramel.
We ate it in the car, using our hands.
My wife and I have had average lives. We haven’t traveled much, we’ve paid bills. We drive old cars. We like caramel cake.
We weren’t lucky enough to have a Rose. No Willie, either. But I’m not sorry. And why would I be. I have everything.
The photo on my dresser proves it.