Do you know the minute you were born? 8:36 a.m is mine. I always watch the clock on my birthday to see when I officially cross over into that next year. I’m sniffing around middle age now, and I’m not sure I like the smell.
My mom always says she loves the age she is now. She declares it like she’s planting a flag in the ground with her age emblazoned upon it. I’m not so declamatory, nor do I feel her absolute confidence. Maybe I know too much about slippage, how things fall apart, how the ends of my dividing cells are degrading, senescence in essence, and how old age creeps in and makes the aches ache and suddenly crawling out of bed seems like “one more thing to do.” Do I remember springing out of bed and attacking the day in my twenties? Not in that cartoonish fashion, but I can definitely feel a difference as I dip into my fifth decade on the planet. What is that line from the song: “My get up and go, just got up and went?”
I can still find it sometimes though. I move like the wind when I spot my youngest about to tumble down the stairs of our backyard deck. She’s a daredevil with low muscle tone. That, my friends, is a bruising combo.
I remember sitting in calculus at Knox College watching the minute hand inch to 8:36 a.m. Knox was a great college that didn’t work out for me. I left after a year, and calculus was my biggest failure. I don’t remember the professor’s name, but I remember his gray bushy beard and perpetual uniform of corduroy pants and plaid felt shirts cladding his lean frame. He eyed me when I came into his office, asking for a withdrawal, like a troll hearing the tramp of a goat on his bridge. “I’ve seen your SAT scores,” he told me. “This class shouldn’t be a problem for you.” I took it as an indictment of my own desultory approach to my studies. Giving a half-hearted effort had always worked for me before! Reflecting on it now, maybe he was disappointed for both us – which makes him a better than average teacher. My ultimate failure was not sticking with the class and failing it honestly if that was to be my fate.
I remember my mother showing up at my school for my thirteenth birthday dressed like…we’re still not sure…Pippi Longstocking recovering from a spin in a blender? One side of her hair braided up, the other side frizzed out, a partially tucked in gray button down shirt, shorts that may or may not have had paint splashed on them, a tray of cookies wafting fresh baked smells as she prowled around the campus with signs that read: “Help! I’m the mother of a teenager.” She also brought my elderly relatives with her, who patted my cheek and said, “Thirteen is a big year. You’re a man, now.” Monica, a classmate, caught me on the playground after my mother had departed and told me, “Your mom is so much cooler than you.” Story of my life, Monica.
This year, I was at work when I watched for the digital readout on my computer to switch to 8:36 a.m. Yes, birthdays do feel less momentous as you grow older. More of a ripple than a splash. People stopped by my office to wish me well; one even brought me a “Happy Birthday” sign in Russian, which was a nice touch for this fan of all things Russki. After work, my wife, kids, father and I headed over to my favorite Chinese food spot and spun the table so that everyone could get their fill of hot tea. My kids forked ice cubes into their cups to make sure they didn’t scald their tongues, which meant the table looked a little like a hurricane had taken a detour over it.
My dad, whose health isn’t the best, said back in 1974 my mother worked all night to have me, and halfway through, decided she wasn’t going to go through with the whole childbirth thing. “Not an option anymore,” the doc told her with a smirk. 8:36 a.m. inevitably came and I came into the world.
I watched a movie with my dad last night, a sci-fi flick. He enjoys the genre, but this one was too arty for him. He asked me if I understood it after the credits began to roll. I said I did. I stole glances at him during the movie, studying his red rimmed eyes and the scars tracking across his skull from his recent surgery. He has seen a few more birthdays of his own come and go than I, and like the movie we watched, sometimes he wonders what it, life and the events that populate it, all means. Regrets and shoulda, coulda, wouldas pepper conversation with him when he gets into a reflective mood. Not sure how many more 8:36’s he will see.
He’s going to live independently for a while, against the wishes of – well – pretty much everyone in the know. But he’s fighting for his happiness as twilight extends its shadowy fingers forward. I admire him for that. He reminds me that happiness is in the pursuit of it. And so I will pursue my own, as the 8:36 a.m.’s keep rolling around.