Today is our son CJ’s thirty-second birthday. I don’t feel old enough to have a son that age, but the wrinkled face in the mirror assures me it’s true. Mrs. C. and I were twenty-eight and had already been married six years when we had our one and only child. Since we’ve known each other since high school it isn’t inconceivable that we could have a son in his forties. I shiver at the thought.
Two reflections tango in my mind today as I think about my son. Surprisingly, the first involves one of the worst days of my life. CJ was two years old and I was out of work during a terrible recession that struck the Northwest in the early eighties. Mrs. C. had a job and was carrying the lion’s share of responsibility for supporting our family. I struggled to find work but my art background made me about as hireable as a shepherd. I decided to take little CJ to the park to feed the ducks and distract me from fretting that I’d never land another job.
At the park it started to rain. I’d failed to consider the weather and hadn’t grabbed CJ’s umbrella or raincoat. Adding to my failure as a provider, I now felt like a failure as a parent. When the shower hardened into heavy rain we took shelter under a tree that did little to keep us dry. I noticed an empty waste can nearby with a clean plastic liner. I pulled it out, tore three holes in it and slipped it over the head of my two-year old. He thought the makeshift raincoat the greatest thing he’d ever seen. He ran about in the rain, spinning like a whirling dervish until he fell down, repeating the process over and over. I remember the happiness on his little face as he dashed about in that garbage sack. I was glad the rain camouflaged my tears. Shortly after this incident I was hired by a local jewelry store where, it turned out, I had a gift for selling jewelry.
Years later another incident cemented itself into my mind. After years of selling jewelry and working my way into a management position, I quit retail to pursue my love of art. I began my career as a freelance illustrator. I’d located my business in a vintage building in downtown Portland, and one winter’s day the weather was unusually brutal. Light snow had been predicted but instead we experienced a rare blizzard.
MAX, Portland’s light rail, was a mile from our house in the suburbs and I usually walked to the station and took the train into town, but I wasn’t sure how long it would take to walk a mile in blinding snow. I called Mrs. C., who’d left work early and was already home. I told her I was leaving and would be home as soon as I could. She informed me that CJ, in his early twenties at the time, would pick me up at the MAX station.
Due to the snow, MAX shut down just as I reached my stop. The only people I saw were bus drivers chaining up their vehicles. I shivered and wondered where CJ was, if he’d even be able to come at all. Then his familiar CJ-7 Jeep rumbled into the parking lot and lurched up to me.
The door opened and my son stepped out. I hadn’t realized until then how much he loomed over me.
“Need a lift?” he asked, grinning.
I don’t know how long I could have stood there without freezing, but all I remember was a flood of warmth that filled me as I looked at the young man who’d somehow replaced my little boy, tall and confident, a rescuer—a man. I felt like I could bust with pride.
We all come to life’s banquet with our own unique gifts, gifts we’re born with, but I couldn’t resist basking in the satisfaction that his mother and I had done our job and done it well. For the first time I felt old, but for reasons I couldn’t possible articulate I wasn’t upset, even though I’d avoided this realization for some time. I slid into the passenger’s seat. CJ revved the engine, shifted gears and drove us home. Along the way I saw my Dad in his face and in his gestures. I suspected the grandfather who died before I was born was there also.
It was one of the happiest days of my life, a day when I was given a rare gift—a glimpse at immortality.
Happy Birthday, Son.