Birthday Boy

Michael’s birthday is the last significant anniversary that ends a tough stretch of emotional hurdles for me that begins every May 1st, on our wedding anniversary. I wrote this post back in 2018, a year after Michael’s death. This year will be the seventh birthday since his untimely death at age 67. My tall broad shouldered husband could look quite intimidating, which was a great cover for a tender, sensitive person who cried when he accidentally broke a robin’s egg, stuck a stillborn puppy in his mouth in a futile effort at resuscitation, and was a sucker for sappy romances. Here’s his backstory. Happy birthday, baby.

When you stop to think about it, birthday celebrations are a bit odd. Although somewhere deep in our brains, the passage from our mothers into the outside world is probably recorded, we don’t have easy access to that memorable entrance. In fact, most of us remember little from the first few years of life. And yet it seems to me that our earliest years are deeply significant, combining whatever is hardwired into our DNA, with the effects of how we are treated by our parents or caregivers. My own children, now in their thirties, routinely exhibit behaviors that are virtually the same as the ones from their babyhood. We are always growing, even during infancy, and by the time we are about five, certain basic feelings are locked into us, whether we can recall how they got there or not.
Today is Michael’s birthday, the second one since his death. This day finishes off the long list of anniversaries that punctuate my month of May. Father’s Day will be more challenging for my kids than for me. But his birthdate resonates with me. As I remember the many birthdays we spent together, I find myself thinking more about the little boy who was formed before I showed up. And that little boy was always present throughout our adult life, on birthdays and all other days, as we maneuvered our way through life and its multitude of challenges.
Michael’s parents were difficult people, hardly the types that were suited for nurturing children. They give credence to the concept of licensing couples before they reproduce. So much heartache could be avoided that way. But that isn’t likely to materialize any time soon. And for my sweet guy, he seemed like an alien, a mutant creature in the cold, insensitive environment that was his home life.

Michael had an older sister. Rather than beloved children, I felt they were essentially perceived as two-dimensional objects. I think their parents didn’t spend much time learning to know or to help their kids. Rather, they hoped their children would grow up to reflect their own very clear values and choices, to become mini-versions of themselves. Their parental love was narcissistic. And putting a child’s needs ahead of their own was never part of their family code.

Michael’s earliest memory was from the vantage point of a 2 and a-half year old with pneumonia who’d been admitted to the hospital. His parents left him there by himself. He woke in the night and began wandering around, confused. The staff wound up putting him in restraints which he remembered for the rest of his life. Another one of his vivid memories was being a 5 year old child in Cleveland, who needed speech therapy to correct a lisp. He took the trolley by himself to his lessons, with a note pinned to his coat, detailing his personal information in case he got lost. As a parent, I always found those two stories incomprehensible. Actually, they were incomprehensible before I was a parent.

Michael told me that he’d actually escaped the worst of his parents’ attentions, which were initially aimed at his sister in a full-court press attempt to turn her into a stylish debutante. She had the wrong stuff. Michael did too. Both of them recognized from their earliest years that they were lacking whatever it was their parents wanted to see in them. And whatever was intrinsic to them didn’t resonate with their parents. Their most essential selves were unseen, not acknowledged, unvalued. That uncertain boy, lacking in confidence and self-deprecating to an absurd degree, came to me packaged as a strong, daring, talented man who seemed capable of anything. And he was sweet, perceptive and gentle. What could possibly go wrong? As we learned to know each other, I learned that boyish uncertainty which was constantly gnawing at him. While I pushed forward, certain there was no situation I couldn’t think my way through, Michael hung back, passive and nervous about putting himself out there, about taking emotional risks or intellectual challenges. He’d jump from a cliff, ride a motorcycle without a helmet and hop rollercoasters until his head spun. But he moved slowly and cautiously in the things that mattered most in the real life. As we made our way down the road, navigating the proverbial “rat race,” I could be found stamping my feet at the finish line, waiting for him to catch up. One of his favorite questions for me was, “would you mind removing your feet from my back?” Our differences in pace were memorable, me trying to yank him forward, and him, trying to hold his own space. Life was interesting indeed.

I tried to love him out of every insecurity that had taken root in him from the beginning of his life. He was intermittently grateful and annoyed. And I, despite being frequently frustrated, was madly in love with this sweet, gifted man who’d been unfairly treated by those dreadful parents. After a long run of twenty years, during which they heaped their abusive style on me, I divested myself of my relationship with them. I’d had enough, trying to help him maintain the hollow shell of a familial relationship. I couldn’t stand who they were, nor the damage they’d done to Michael. What kids will tolerate from their abusive parents is remarkable. But they weren’t my parents. I walked away. Michael said he didn’t blame me and had our situations been reversed, he wouldn’t have lasted six months.

Michael and I moved forward together. In time, his confidence grew as he began to build first, small personal successes, and eventually, the bigger ones that made him a fabulous public servant and a gifted teacher. And most important, he was a matchless husband and a devoted loving father.

But periodically, the childhood demons emerged and he felt less than, not good enough. Over and over, throughout our years together, he’d ask, why are you even with me? It drove me crazy.

In 2012 we began the long road of his cancer experience. Many of the trivialities we indulged in during normal life, were shunted off to the side as we faced months of tough treatment and uncertainty. Our feelings for each other deepened in intensity as we reveled in every moment we shared. Still, he would ask me why I bothered with him, when he could be so difficult. In 2014, he’d been through 2 surgeries, 30 radiation treatments and 18 rounds of a powerful chemo cocktail. His birthday that year had us hanging on the edge of an uncertain future. I was casting about for an appropriate gift and fretting over finding something meaningful, something significant.

In the end, I wrote him what I hoped would be the penultimate answer to his endless insecure questioning of my loyalty to him. The ultimate I would save for what was our fragile future. We were lucky to get almost three more years. Here it is, as true for me today as it was when I wrote it 4 years ago, as true as it was for the many years before I wrote it, and as true as it will be forever. Happy birthday, my darling boy, wherever you, or your microbes, or particulates may be floating through the universe. Parts of you will always be with me.

Because you never tried to change me.
Because you were never threatened by my intelligence.
Because you always made me feel like I could do anything.
Because you forced me to do things I didn’t think I could do.
Because you stood up for me.
Because you always played on my team.
Because you made me feel beautiful, no matter what.
Because you are a gorgeous, sexy beast.
Because you listened.
Because you heard me when I wasn’t talking.
Because you are my best friend.
Because you make me feel safe.
Because you’re funny.
Because you’re smart.
Because we made unbelievable children together.
Because you stayed hot for me our entire life together.
Because you tried to be a hero.
Because you know what’s fair and right.
Because you’d go to the wall for me.
Because we understand the world in the same way.
Because you love books and movies.
Because you’re a sap.
Because you make me crazy.
Because you’re my home.
Because you’re my best fit.
Because you hold my heart.
Because you are my always and forever.
That’s why.

6/5/14 – Happy birthday – With all my love, Renee

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