Facts have been partially fictionalized, owing to the famous proverb “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!” For the purpose of pragmatics, I’ve extrapolated it in this case to include “any ‘ole story”… Like this one.
A funny thing happened this week. The rug was seemingly pulled out from under me one morning when I realized that I could no longer claim that I was ‘barely 30’. Yep, another Birthday had come to bite me. You know, those annual events that threaten to drag you into a case of “What do I have to show for the past 12 months/X number of years?!” Of course, the balance of the day was just like any other typical day in recent memory (if, of course, you can call them typical). My Birthdays have been thus for quite some time (indistinguishable from, say, ‘Thursday’), actually, so I was at least relieved that I didn’t morph onto some white haired (or bald) old guy by lunch time. I didn’t even immediately succumb to the “What do you have to show for the past 12 months” shtick. “I guess you could call that success”, I thought to myself as I headed home from work.
In the evening, however, things became more sinister. I was sequestered in the office for a very long time; to deliberate on my ancient-ness, I guessed. I sat in the darkness, all manner of noises and odors assailed me; some familiar and some I dared not to even to guess about. To be honest, I didn’t actually see my captors. I had just come out to use the bathroom when a loud and commanding voice informed me I wasn’t allowed to leave the room. Oh bother. I couldn’t even walk around in my own house now!?
When at long last I was permitted to exit my cell, I was greeted by a lovely meal of gluten steaks (the stuff of life), baked potatoes, and green beans in sautéed garlic. (a last meal, perhaps?!) The other end of the table was piled high with gifts that were actually WRAPPED. Clearly, this was not my typical Birthday. That I’d been kept from eating for so long was rather inconvenient, and a stack of presents was downright embarrassing.
It was all very peculiar and unsettling. Were they trying to let me know that I was now old enough that they couldn’t help but acknowledge my milestone toward Senior Citizen-hood? The woman was apparently my wife, but the guy hadn’t figured into any previous Birthdays. Too young (and short) to be my brother, he had this strange light in his eyes that rather permeated his whole face. It was something between the Cheshire cat and the look one gets when he knows something that I do not. Perhaps he was saying, “Ha, you need a cane now and you don’t even know it!” I don’t know. I got the distinct impression that he didn’t come from the Goertzen side of the family, as he just didn’t have the nose for it, and he had too good a tan. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I will heretofore refer to him as ‘The Shitake’.
Anyway, the food was very good. Except my wife kept making references to the effect that the gluten was soft and would thus NEVER fry properly. This was, of course, utter nonsense as there’s no WRONG way to eat gluten. After the second comment, I though that perhaps she was making veiled references about me that I wasn’t picking up on (though I didn’t FEEL half-baked). Where was this going?!
After the food, I was forced to sit behind the ridiculously high stack of wrapped items. My captors informed me that I must now identify each item without touching them; I had two guesses, “OR ELSE.” I gulped. Oy, what sort of racket was this!? Pretty much an impossible task. Even now I can feel the shivers going up and down my spine at the sound of their maniacal laughter at the bewildered look on my face. My eloquent protestations elicited a small concession of sorts as they finally allowed me to touch the FIRST present only before guessing. Or rather, I fell for their bait. Just as I reached out and picked up the small, well wrapped item, I caught sight of a smirk flashing across the face of ‘The Shitake’. My heart sank down into my left big toe as I felt a ‘roundish but not completely round’ item that would be impossible to identify without a certain super hero’s requisite x-ray vision. Naturally, being rather less than super anything, I lacked that certain ability. In resignation, I opted out of guessing altogether and slowly opened the package, to sustained vehement verbal outrage. …
In 1000 years, I would have never guessed they were reusable transparent CD protectors. ‘The Shitake’s’ eyes burned with a bit of triumph despite the disappointment of me refusing to guess and be completely wrong (twice!). Aye, but I’d clearly taken a bit of the edge off of them, and I felt my energy returning. Before taking up the challenge, I felt a bit of a twinge. This was the first gift I’d received of any kind from ‘The Shitake’ to my memory. That was significant. And they’d just spent the better part of the day planning and preparing this time for me so that it wouldn’t just feel like Tuesday. I almost backed out of stealing their fun in a bout of sentimentalism. ALMOST!
OKAY, Let’s Play the game! I scanned the remaining items; one was the same size and shape of a box that the UPS guys had unceremoniously lobbed over our fence and left in the rain. Before having it snatched out of my hands, I remembered it was from some ‘quix’ type place. Given the weight and the way it was snatched from my hands, it had to be… uh-huh. The remaining two items were large, flat, and rectangular, which means they were probably… yep. The thought popped into my mind that I hadn’t looked into a certain closet where a picture I bought awaited a frame, and I suspected it wouldn’t be there if I looked now. “Okey dokey!” I chirped, sitting up and squaring my shoulders. Pointing to each item, I crooned “Shoes… unknown picture… MY picture from Thailand! Could be the pictures are reversed, what with me not having x-ray vision and all. But there’s nothing left but the cryin’. Heh heh.” That would fix their wagon.
They were a lot quieter as I opened the remaining items (Yeah, Finally some peace from all that annoying ribbing): First, the nice dress shoes to replace the ones that recently disintegrated on my feet from everyday use over 2 years. They felt instantly comfortable, and I thought about the fact that I would probably have walked around in the old ones until the last bit of leather fell off my foot before being able to justify shelling out more for such a basic necessity as footwear. Somebody cares enough to look out for me and save me from myself.
Secondly, I unwrapped a really cool wolf portrait from my In-laws that the puppy kept barking and growling at until we turned it around so he couldn’t see it anymore. We laughed. Guess it looked like the real deal to him, and he didn’t want to share us with that interloper. At least that made me somewhat important to that furry little mutt.
Finally, the hauntingly beautiful (to me anyway) portrait of the grinning, wrinkly, old Hmong grandmother holding her shy little granddaughter. Seen for the first time inside a frame and behind glass, it looked new again, and I remembered why I kept going back to the Night Bazaar every day just to look at it. …
I looked up after briefly contemplating such weighty matters because it wasn’t over. It was time for real Black Forest Cake, the definitive proof that Birthdays are something to be celebrated rather than avoided or ignored.
That evening, I did a little bit of wondering what I had to show for all of the time I’ve been given on this planet. Much of it, I decided, has been wasted. There’s no getting around it, and there’s no point looking for excuses. If I’m not playing to my strengths… that’s a weakness. Some of my time has been spent on things that you can’t exactly hold in your hand or point at on a wall behind a frame. It doesn’t give me much to present at show-and-tell. But at least some of these must have been good things because people cared enough to go out of their way to make the day special for me in ways that go beyond any sense of protocol or obligation. I was surprised by this, and I didn’t know why.
Somewhere along the way in the past few years, I think I’ve sort of forgotten that I’m not exactly an island even though I tend to act like it in my busyness. I don’t NEED much from people… even though I do. As I drifted off into the first day of my 32nd year of life, I felt something for the first time in who knows when? The feeling of being overwhelmed by the kindness of others who care about me. I hope that those who called, emailed, sent a gift/card, or who put on the Ritz with a full blown party for me, realize how much I appreciated their gestures. And how much I appreciate them. If they do a year from now, I guess you could call that success.