Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
I awoke on Wednesday morning, and my mind, as it usually does, was accessing the list of “have-to-dos” for that particular day when my wife rolled over and said sweetly, “Happy Birthday, Honey!”
A birthday can be many things. A day of celebration, a day of reflection, or just another day. It is a magical thing in a way, for it’s the one day of the year when a person celebrates…themselves. We are free to be self-indulgent and our family, friends, and loved ones are free to spoil us, even just a little. We look around and realize that no one can pass through this life without leaving some traces of evidence of our time here on this planet. It could be something as substantial as a granite monument, or something as ephemeral as a fading memory. Our family loves us, our friends cherish us, even acquaintances will carry a piece of us inside. We have touched, and been touched along this journey we call “life.”
For me, this was number 57. An incipient collection of aches and pains reminded me that this was a number that will only increase. But in that reflective moment between sleep and full wakefulness, a curious sense of happiness enveloped me. It was a warm kind of feeling, different from the burning desire for wild celebration of other years. Maybe the 6-month-long hullabaloo of relocating has left me needing a normal kind of day.
I like this shift I work. I go in around noontime and return home around midnight. I get a break from the big-city traffic going both ways, and the ride home in the protective cloak of darkness gives me time to think and ponder. And every writer worth their salt needs time and space to think and ponder.
Throughout the day, memories rose, played through, and faded away, some etched in HD-like clarity, and others dim and indistinct, as if seen through a frosted glass. While I haven’t done everything I wanted, it has still been a full life. My itchy foot has taken me to 49 states (only Alaska still eludes me) and some 28 foreign countries. I fell in love, got married and together we raised four children, who have blessed us with 6 wonderful grandchildren.
I’ve seen life begin, and watched as the final shroud fell. My parents have passed, as has one of our grandchildren, taken at the tender age of five months. That tragedy left me wondering why some of us live well into our 90’s, while others are taken away before their lives even get started.
I’ve had periods of good health, and others of illness. During a heart procedure in 2003, the shroud fell upon me for a few minutes, giving me a glimpse of the beauty and wonder of what lies beyond this life. The experience changed everything.
I remember that wild ride on my motorcycle through the twisted course of Deal’s Gap, North Carolina, balancing the centrifugal against the centripetal on a knife-edge of sheer terror. I will always remember how intensely I felt the power of life as I carved through those serpentine curves. I also remember with fondness, lying on the white sand beach at Key West, feeling the warmth of the sun sinking into my bones and my head completely and happily empty.
I’ve stood in awe in the concrete and steel canyons of New York City, and also on the precipice of that huge scar in the earth called the Grand Canyon. I’ve walked through a mass of humanity in Hong Kong and Tokyo, and also stood silent and alone on a desert road in the shadow of Cochise Head Mountain in southwest New Mexico. I stood on the deck of a ship at sea and watched the sun disappear into the ocean as my heart ached for home.
There were times when it seemed things were spinning out of control. And then there were moments when my world was made perfect by a grandchild’s hug.
Joy and sadness. Excitement and drudgery. Frenetic moments and languid hours. Triumph and defeat. Conflict and peace. In 57 years, I’ve experienced it all. And yet, I know that my journey is not yet finished. Still ahead of me are places I’ve never been, things I’ve never seen, experiences I’ve never had. Like Mr. Frost, I know my sojourn is not yet complete and I still have miles yet to go.
General Thomas Jackson, better known by his sobriquet “Stonewall,” was once said,
“God has fixed the time and place of my death. I do not concern myself about that,
but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me.
It is the way all men should live.
Then all men would be equally brave."
None of us has a map for the future. We can’t know how much further our road goes. But like old Stonewall, I will prepare. And when that moment comes, I pray that I can face it boldly, without a shred of regret.
So today I say with joy, "Happy Birthday to me." And I celebrate. For it has been a "wonderful life."