Yeah, I was surprised. Big-time surprised.
I got home at a quarter till. My car approached the neighborhood. It was the perfect December eventide. The sun was setting over Birmingham. The foothills of Appalachia were kissed by a golden sundown, like miniature mountainsides topped with Kraft Velveeta cheese.
My house was within eyeshot. I could see my porch through the windshield. My house’s porch was crowded with people. Lots of people. There were maybe a hundred.
I got out of the car. People cheered. “Happy birthday!” My wife ran up to me. She greeted me with tears in her eyes. The crowd began to sing “Happy Birthday,” off-pitch, like a choir of Labradoodles with sinus infections.
I stepped onto the porch and an ordained priest handed me a beer. “Drink up birthday boy,” said the Episcopal priest, cracking open my can.
You have to love Episcopalians.
I hugged Aaron first. Dear Aaron. Aaron and his wife, April, are family to me. Longtime friends. They are as true as the book of Leviticus; pure as Geneva County tomatoes. “We love you, man,” he said.
I choked back tears.
Next, I embraced Julie and her husband Jake. Julie is my longtime fiction editor—God help her. Julie edited my very first novel, years ago. I will never forget it, Julie’s first manuscript note to me was: “Too many fart jokes.”
We hugged and I felt the dam begin to break.
Next came Patrick. Patrick and I play music together. Then Kelly, who also plays music with me. Then Tom and Fred, my longest held friends and bandmates.
Then my neighbors. Jeff, Donna, Kim, Mistey, and Elizabeth.
I hugged each of them. “Happy birthday,” they all said.
The tears were knocking at my door. But I was diligent to hold the weeping back because I was raised by stoic Baptists who did not cry unless Gloria Gaither said we could.
Next, I hugged Katie and Peter. Peter is the Episcopal priest, and my longtime constituent. Katie, his wife, is a hospice nurse. They both hugged me and nearly broke my ribs.
Peter whispered into my ear, “Happy birthday, man.”
Whereupon, Katie held me closely and said, “I am very drunk.”
Tonye hugged me next. Precious Tonye. My surrogate sister. Then came Mandy and her husband Jon, the teacher and the vulnerable fireman. Then came Shannon and Todd, the hippie and the booksmith.
Amy, Tammy, and Joel. The only true family I have in the great city of Birmingham. The people who, when I first arrived in this city, I was driving a 28-foot U-Haul, were sitting in my driveway at 1:23 a.m. ready to help me unload. If that ain’t love.
Then I hugged Tim and Stephanie. Tim is my dentist. I embraced them both. Tim said, “Your teeth look especially good tonight, big guy.”
After which came Steve and Elvira. Then Robin and Brad. Then Leslie and Bob. Then a whole bunch of other people I’m forgetting.
Next, I saw my baby sister standing there. She was by herself, in the corner. The loveliest young woman at the ball.
I held her. I kissed her hair. I couldn’t believe she came.
My sister and I were raised beneath the weight of ugly childhoods. We were poor. We were suicide survivors. We were both uneducated.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” she said. “I love you.”
Then the shindig began. We ate Miss Myra’s pit barbecue until our feet swelled. We ate birthday cakes from Iz Café until we succumbed to diabetic comas. We drank cans of ice-cold, local-brewed Ovaltine. We laughed a lot. My house was thumping like a discotech á la 1972.
We sang Christmas carols around the piano. We played music. My longtime bandmates played “Soldier’s Joy.” My wife got up and buck danced.
And when the evening was through, my wife, Jamie, held me closely and spoke into my ear.
“You know what I think?” she said. “I think this is what heaven will be like. Like a big party.
“I believe our friends and family will gather around, on that final day, and we’ll all know we are so loved, so cherished, so unconditionally valued, that nothing we could ever do, that none of our screw-ups, that none of our boneheaded moves could ever separate us from the flawless love of a perfect heaven.”
And try as I may, I can’t think of a better closing line than that.