If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the last time I got really excited about my birthday, it would have involved a roller-stating rink, the possibility of getting a Landspeeder, and maybe a caramel cake from my grandmother. This means that the last time I had a birthday of sharp-intake-of-breath magnitude would have occurred sometime in the late 1970s/early 1980s. To be sure, there have been some good ones after that, some that the less said about the better, and some that have just been “meh;” however, the last few years’ worth of annual demarcation of my getting closer to retirement age have been absolutely amazing thanks in no small part to Ashley and her attempts to one-up the surprise quotient of each birthday.
I hope that I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings when I say that I don’t even remember what happened last year, since my birthday fell just nine days after my father passed away. Due in part to the close proximity of this juxtaposition of life and death and how it could easily cast a shadow over every subsequent year – also due in part to the fact that we’re stuck in Miami for the duration of the holiday season thanks to Ashley being on duty – we decided this year to take my birthday on the road and revisit some old stomping grounds we’ve been meaning to get back to. Athens, GA to be specific. The place where we met, the place that for some reason feels like home to us, and the place we pine for on a weekly basis, if for nothing more than the food (the Grit and Big City Bread), the coffee (Jittery Joe’s), and other bonus features (Terrapin).
…okay, really, we just decided to take some time to go visit Ashley’s mom, dad and sisters in Columbus, GA, and we thought what the heck – if we have to fly in to Atlanta, let’s take an extra day to go to Athens. The timing of the visit happened to coincide with my birthday.
Although we didn’t get the opportunity to see everyone we wanted to see or to go everywhere we wanted to go, there were two distinct sets of people that – well, one I felt I had to see, and one that I needed to see. One for connection, the other for a closure of sorts.
While there are a number of people who I want to see Kai and know how awesome he is (that number would be “Earth, Population of”), there are just a handful of people I feel I want HIM to know, for him to be held by because it would mean the world to me, and to be a part of his life. One such person was the first person we saw once we arrived in Athens. Ten (?!?!) years ago when I started graduate school at Mississippi State University, there was a husband and wife duo who, through their own unique ways, each gave me a feeling of being part of a family when I was without one. Ed and I clicked and connected on so many levels (all things Trek; the superiority of Macs; scoffing at people who ate Chinese food with forks and not chopsticks; etc.) it was as if I had found my elder kindred nerd that it made our professional similarities almost superfluous. Ed, who passed away a few years back, probably would have gotten Kai his first Starfleet onesie. Merrily was and remains one of the few individuals in my life who if I ever heard say “I’m disappointed in you,” it would utterly crush my soul. She also is one of a handful of intellectuals who inspires me to be better; she retains a watermark of professionalism that while not readily attainable for all is at least partially accessible due to her always holding a helping hand out for others to reach for and grab. The love I have for these two people and their awesome, awesome daughters can’t be measured and is not diminished through distance. Although he wasn’t physically there to be able to see Merrily hold Kai for the first time, I have faith that Ed was looking on, smiling right along with my dad. When she held him, it was as if the present (me) was seeing my past cradling my future. And it was beautiful (and tear inducing). Through stories (and hopefully maybe personal interaction), Kai’s going to know them as more like family than just “Daddy’s friends.”
The last Sunday that I was in Athens before Ashley and I moved to Miami was a blur; that was what made the visiting of the 706 later this night that much more poignant. My final Sunday at Compass Church was coupled with emotional turbulence over the fact that that the kids I had worked with for three years in the youth group were taking off that afternoon for summer camp – the same summer camp I had gone to every year SINCE the start of the 706 and we had seen grown exponentially in attendance – and that by the time they got back from camp on Friday, I’d be gone. This particular Sunday would be THE last time I’d see many of them until who knew when. I did make myself a silent promise that I’d return one day; more than anything else, I wanted to see the core group we took to the first FISH Camp (show of hands: who still has their stone?) again before they graduated from high school. Erin? Cotton? Meagan? To let a trip to Athens occur and NOT see them would have been a wasted trip on SO many levels. (It would have only been better had we been able to play Ultimate Frisbee one last time.) And since come May they’ll all be ready for college the following Fall…well. It was time to come back to see them.
The last person I hugged the final Sunday I was at Compass was Andy. Twice. As I was walking out the door. We both had tears in our eyes, and it was almost not what I would have expected from either of us. Yes, Andy and I did have a bond (oh, the hours upon hours we spent as the only two “adults” in KidMo) and we’d had a few deep-ish talks, but I think that morning we were both mourning the loss of what could have been, of how we could have grown the budding relationship between us if only my useless self hadn’t been moving to the literal end of the country. But I well, well remember his was the last shoulder I cried on before I left for Florida.
I felt a twinge of symbolism when I heard he was going to be speaking to the 706 that night. The last person I touched (or, for the theological amongst you, “laid my hands upon”) was taking up the cloak I’d left in Compass and was speaking with the same almost-shaky voice while on the stage, and with a mixture of humor and passion that seemed to capture the crowd. I was filled with this sense of pride and excitement to see how much Andy had grown in the years since we last were together, and I can’t wait to see where his journey takes him as he finds his own voice and path.
This time out, when I left Compass on Wednesday night, the last person I hugged was Carly. Carly, whose letter to me stays in a frame on my desk (when I have a desk, that is). Carly, who has grown up both vertically and emotionally, developing into an amazing young woman in her own right. I have nothing but faith in and assurance of her future. I don’t think there was anything particularly deep or meaningful in the final hug between us – it was more, for me, as a passage on some levels; as a closing of one chapter, a turning of a page, and wondering what comes next.
Now, I’ll be honest: I’ve written before about some of my feelings of inadequacy. Part of this does stem from some of my time at Compass, as well as some incidents afterwards. Mark Heard once wrote (okay: sang) “I’ve been confounded by the whirlwind of what-ifs and dreams.” And on more than one occasion I’ve been given over to thoughts of what might have happened, of what might have been, had we stayed in Athens. I’ve had to deal with feelings of resentment, often over leaving friends, family, and those who blur that line.
However, as a dear friend has continually gently reminded me, I am now where I am supposed to be for this season, and there is a reason for it. Logically, then, I can extrapolate that I guess the same hold true for where all I have been – that there were no wasted moments; that there have been no wasted experiences, no wasted time spent. Everything matters. All the lives that I have intersected and crossed, and the love that we’ve shared – in a very George Bailey understanding of life, to take myself out of those moments might have caused a completely different outcome for both myself and the other parties.
It’s kind of fitting, at this time of year, to remember that I really do have a wonderful life.
And that the best birthday gift I could have gotten this year was in seeing old friends, sharing hugs with loved ones, and being able to see my mom and sister play with and hang out with Kai.