Oh, Mark, today you turn thirty six. You were eighteen when I met you, eighteen when I fell in love with you and you with me, and somehow now it’s eighteen years after that. Aren’t we still those teenagers, swept up in the whirlwind of romance and hot summer nights? I think we are. Since then we’ve become grown-ups in this world together, or are we just playing house? Maybe that’s the same thing. You do the math, and now we’ve hit that point in both of our lives where from here on out it’s more together than apart. We are just as much a part of each other’s growing up, growing out, now.
You turned 18 and I made you a mix tape. Songs were a love language of mine, still are. We still have that tape, and I’ll be sad the day when we own a car that no longer has a tape deck. 18 years ago we listened to that tape, saying so much without having to say anything, while you unwrapped your other gift – a picture of us, probably our very first together, in a frame with a hand-painted mat around it. I scrawled a quote around it, though these 18 years later I don’t remember what it said. I still think you’d love a mix tape and a picture more than most other things I could give you.
Who knew then that we’d be celebrating the rest of our birthdays together?
Maybe you remember when we felt like the Beach Boys were singing our anthem when they would sing, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” If we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long. We leaned into this getting old part, hoping that it turned the key into our future together. And it did. Maybe we are just getting what we asked for. Is it that simple?
When I was cutting your hair last week, I noticed gray hairs poking through. We laughed at them, and I maybe you’re thankful you keep your hair so short that it’s mostly unnoticeable. Later than night, lying in bed, I wondered what you’ll look like when that gray comes in longer, thicker – silver fox, wise and lithe and strong.
I can’t believe my own goodness because the creases along your eyes, weathering your face, have only strengthened your rugged handsomeness. Your face has been chiseled well with the years. Those crinkles along your eyes are from your deep and abiding smile, your ridiculous and uncontrollable laugh. I’ve watched that smile for years, I’ve known that smile forever.
You’ve been a runner for as long as I’ve known you. Like all things, your running has ebbed and flowed. This summer, though, you set your sights, you aimed and fired, and your work and training were solid. I’ve seen you run and run without much thought, without the right training, and never pay a price. In fact, mostly you’ve been rewarded. But even with this year’s solid base, that commitment to do things right this time, your knee didn’t agree with you. Is that your age showing, throwing down the gauntlet, begging for the challenge? 36 is not 18. Though that knee wanted to lay down and give up just two weeks before your big race – that last race of the season, the one you set your sights on – you kept fighting. You pushed through. 18 is not 36.
I’ve been doing some rearranging in the house lately, (no surprise), and I emptied out on old chest that had been our coffee table. Inside were dozens of photo albums. The top layer had books of the kids, but as I dug deeper there were scrapbooks from the first few years of our marriage. The kids and I yanked them out and sat on the couch turning each page carefully as I fielded questions. They are all so curious about this life that we had before them. These are our stories in here, which makes them their stories too. These are the stories that maybe someday will be told to grandkids, to anyone who will listen. I began telling our stories.
There is a picture of you, and then of me, standing in front of a frozen waterfall somewhere near Lake Wallenpaupack that one winter when we went away, a gift from your folks. It was a tough time for me, and so for us – my parents were splitting, and it felt hard to walk, to move forward, as if there was no floor, no ground. We explored crazy antique stores and saw the movie, “Chicago” in a tiny movie theater in the rain. You remember, of course, the ceiling fell in while we were sitting there, dumping water into that theater and you knew it would happen the whole time. You eyed that bulging ceiling tile, catching the rain from some leak somewhere, and you knew that it would burst. We laughed when it happened, people shrieking around us in surprise, and continued to eat our popcorn.
With those photo albums on my lap, I studied our faces, our postures. Our eyes. We were young, yes, but that’s not so much it. Sometimes I think that I am, we are, so entrenched in this life of small children, in the parenting and the work of this family, that it’s like wandering around up close to the world. The details are beautiful but wildly abstract and out of proportion. It’s not until I step back that I can see the panorama of life where we are – to see how this piece fits into our beautiful puzzle. Our puzzle is big, baby, and from where I am it’s easy to lose track of things. But we’ve laid our corners, put our border pieces together, and we’re filling in the rest, piece by piece.
This year, we’ve been picking up the pieces of the puzzle, examining them up close, feeling their edges and figuring out what belongs. There have been many that don’t. The life lessons have been strong this year, not for the faint-hearted, and our days are numbered, all of us.
There is that famous line by Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” We are growing old together, yes, but I’m not convinced. What if the best is right here, right now, wherever we may be? The best was when I was 16, you were 18, and you drove too fast in your batmobile car through my sleepy neighborhood. That was the best.
The best was when we I waited for you at the top of College Hill in the dawn, a whole college campus asleep except us, that very first time you drove up to see me in college. That was the best.
Was it the best when we struggled to find each other, to find our place in the world, to unleash purpose in our hearts? What about then? The mountains of Colorado, dense forests along the way, the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Something tells me that, yes, that was the best, too.
The best was when you turned 30, and tiny Grant and I waved at you while you soared above our heads strapped into that contraption with the big motor and a gigantic parachute stretched out behind. Paraflying, you were free like a bird. That was the best.
Today, singing an off-key happy birthday to you around a campfire, this is the best.
And if we’re lucky enough to see thirty six plus thirty six make seventy two, I have a feeling that that will be the best, too.