It’s my birthday and I’m writing this before sunrise. I don’t know why. I guess, like all aging people, I have changed over the years. I don’t sleep like I used to. Once upon a time I could fall asleep during a pep rally, but now I wake up hours before my neighbor’s deranged rooster, Virgil.
Virgil is a piece of work. He crows at odd hours. And once he starts crowing, he goes all day, no matter how many blunt objects are hurled at him. Virgil is one of those chickens who, when he looks at you with his two crazy eyes, you know he’s only got one oar in the water.
The first thing I do this morning is start the coffee on the stove. Then I listen for Virgil at the back door, but he isn’t up yet.
Thank God for birthday blessings.
To kick off my big day, I play my guitar, quietly, so I won’t wake my wife. The Folgers perks on the stove while I play “After You’ve Gone.” I’ve been picking a guitar since I was 9 years old, and in all that time I think I’ve actually managed to get worse.
The percolator starts bubbling. I put the guitar down and turn the coffee off.
This porcelain Corningware percolator was a wedding gift from my mother. I remember the day I got it. No sooner had I announced to Mama that I was getting married than she wrapped up her 1950s coffeepot in paper grocery bags and gifted it to me.
“You’ll need coffee if you’re gonna be married,” she said. And I nearly started crying because in that brief moment, before I left her home forever, life seemed so existentially real to me. I can’t explain it.
I pour a steaming cup then walk outside before sunrise.
On my porch I discover that it is colder than brass undergarments out here. I sit on my stoop, holding the mug with both hands, waiting for dawn. I’m replaying a few good birthday memories.
Like my sixth birthday, when my mother took me and my friends to the movies. Ten of us rode in a station wagon, piled upon each other’s laps, singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” in skull-cracking, shrill, kiddy voices. It’s a wonder my mother didn’t run into a telephone pole out of pure desperation.
Or there was the birthday my uncle gave me a guitar. I was so shocked when I received the instrument. Namely, because my uncle was a guy who was always flat broke. It was a low-level miracle that he could even afford strings.
Years later, I discovered that his money came from a lucky horse race. He said his prize horse had been named “Hoof Heartedly.” In the final heat, Hoof outran “Sotally Tober” and “Ohgoditsmymotherinlaw” in a photo finish.
The result was my warped pawnshop guitar. To me it was worth a million bucks. My uncle watched me untie the big bow and he fuzzed my hair. He told me that, hey, I might not turn out to be the best guitar player in the world, but if I stick with it I could certainly be the redheadest.
Then there was the birthday party my wife threw just 10 days after our wedding. It was a surprise party, and it was to become, perhaps, the most hellish experience of my human career.
Surprise parties are not my thing. I’m amazed I didn’t suffer a brainstem stroke when everyone in that dark living room leapt from their hiding places and shouted, “Happy birthday!” like crazed killers.
I turned white with shock and had to borrow a loaner pair of trousers from my cousin. The den was filled with 50 people all drinking beer and singing. The only problem was, I didn’t have 50 friends. So who were these folks? Who were these perfect strangers? I didn’t recognize a face.
“Who are all these people?” I asked my wife.
She hooked arms with me and said, “Just a few neighbors.”
“Neighbors? You invited neighbors we’ve never met to my birthday?”
She picked lint off my collar. “Remember your manners.”
So for the rest of the night I played the gracious host to several dozen squatters in my den, topping off their drinks, cleaning up carpet spills, and passing around trays of light hors d’oeuvres. Partygoers kept sidling up to me, cracking open fresh beverages, saying, “Now what was your name one more time?”
After that, I told my wife that if she ever wanted to surprise me again she can just push me into rush hour traffic.
The sun is rising now, and it’s a daybreak for the books. A flaming orange ball hoists itself above the tree line and I watch it expand until it becomes too bright to look at.
And I am thinking that this is already the best birthday I’ve ever had, simply because I’m still here. I’m still in this world. I haven’t kicked my oxygen habit yet. I still have a pulse. Or to be quite frank about it: I didn’t die last year.
Neither did any bad accidents befall me. Nor did any major disasters harm me. Many of my loved ones are still alive. The Braves are still playing baseball. Andy Griffith reruns are still in syndication. Queso dip still exists.
I can’t get over how fortunate I am. And even though I know fortune streaks don’t last, at least I’m here right now. At least right now there is a Right Now.
I realize this all sounds pretty corny, but I mean it. I could cry when I think about my painfully ordinary life. Because today it doesn’t feel painful, or ordinary. It feels so existentially real.
Now Virgil is awake.