Yesterday was my birthday. To say I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of well-wishes, stories of things I had done to help others, comical recollections of days past, or simple “I love you”s from family and friends would be a gross understatement. Literally over 1,000 people (yes, I counted and I still don’t believe it) took a moment out of their day to wish me well. As humbling as a day like yesterday was, I never imagined that yesterday would be the day I received the single greatest gift I have ever received in my life.
It came through a phone call from my father.
My father lives in my hometown of Saginaw, Michigan. For the past few years, he has been primary caretaker of Victoria Owens, his mother and my granny (nobody calls her “grandma”) who is fighting a losing battle against Alzheimer’s disease. Her memories are becoming more fractured as the days pass, causing her to forget where she is and repeat questions frequently. Once she even mentioned having seen my grandfather…who passed away in 2002. If pressured, I would argue that my granny is as much a mother to me as my own mother, and I don’t say that to slight my own phenomenal blessing of a mother in ANY way. Granny, Mom and Dad were an amazing team, with my granny watching me after morning kindergarten classes while my parents worked. Many of my first memories of life include my granny, including the time when the five-year-old version of myself stuck a bobby pin in a light socket while pretending to be a spy picking locks to unveil “the secret formula” that all spies inevitably are searching for when they break into places. I would give anything to give my memories to my granny, as well as take the opportunity to see my life through her eyes, but I understand that the light is fading, and memories are leaving my granny like water escaping a broken dam.
My father does his best to be the LAST person to call me. Being my father’s son, his logic makes perfect sense to me: if he is the last person to call, our time on the phone won’t be interrupted. Now that I have a son, we all seem to share that logic, since my son actually called and interrupted Dad’s call this year. But before my son called, my dad gave me the greatest gift that I never saw coming. We talked for a while about how we were both doing and, naturally, the conversation shifted to my granny. We both know that it is a matter of time before the fog settles into her mind, and we do our best to focus on the sunshine while it lasts. For the past few days, she has been in a hospital, and a few times had been unresponsive, causing noticeable stress in my father’s voice as well as obvious concern in my own. My dad informed me that Granny hadn’t been able to state the correct day or year for the last six days. There was a time where they had “the final talk” where for the first time my granny told my father that she was ready to move on. Unbeknownst to my father, Granny and I have been having similar conversations for the better part of a decade, where she’d tell me that she had lived a full life, wasn’t afraid of what was to come next, and didn’t want any of us acting stupid when that time comes. There was always a peace that she had when discussing this with me. I imagined that she had that same peace when talking to my father. As I reflect on those conversations with my granny and contemplate how my father feels as he endures the daily torture of watching his mother slowly drift into the mental abyss, he began to share with me how the hospital visit went that day. This day was quite different than every day prior for the past week.
That day my grandmother looked my father in the eye and said, “Today is Christopher’s birthday.” She wasn’t asking him.
Curious as to how she was so certain, my father asked, “How do you know today’s Christopher’s birthday?”
She smiled. “Because it’s December 28th. I’d never forget my baby’s birthday.”
I felt my body slump as the tears became rivulets on my face as my father shared this with me.
“What year is it?” My father asked, amazed that she remembered this day.
“Oh that’s easy,” my granny replied. “It’s 1996.”
“Do you remember my birthday?” My father asked.
“Of course, silly,” she responded, “It’s November 11th.”
My father’s birthday, the birthday of my granny’s firstborn, is September 15th.
“I may not remember much, ” my granny continued, “but I know it’s December 28th. Make sure you tell Chris Happy Birthday and that I love him.”
My attempts to compose myself failed as my voice cracked through the phone, thanking my father for sharing that story with me. Whether it be coincidence, which I don’t believe in, or if her mind returned to its sunny state for just a bit that day, I had what very likely could be my granny one last time, on my birthday, telling me that she loved me. That moment will always mean so much more to me than any blog or poem will ever articulate.
If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that our times on this planet is as fleeting as my granny’s memories are right now. There is only one way we can defeat time, and that is to love as many people as often as possible. Hopefully, that love will resonate on for centuries and millennia to come.
That is one lesson from my granny I pray I never forget.