My husband had a birthday yesterday. We had a nice little celebration upon his arrival home from work. But this story comes before the actual event. Approximately two weeks prior to it. To be fair, the whole story begins with his family, when they were much younger. But let’s just say it begins with the email I received from my sister-in-law, Christine, two weeks ago, about John’s birthday.
Christine is the widow of Henri, my husband’s late brother, who passed away three years ago leaving John, the oldest in his family, the only one remaining of what was once four siblings. Nearly fifty years before Henri died, their sister, Marie-France passed away in her early twenties due to complications from epilepsy. Henri’s twin, George, died six years before that from blood poisoning. Growing up poor, children of an alcoholic, rage-filled father and weak, martyr-style mother, only Henri and John managed to make it through to mature adult years. Each took a different path in their lives. Henri became an engineer, married Christine, who was from Germany, and had two daughters and several foster children along the way. For ten years they lived in the U.K. where Henri’s company had a branch. Over time, the girls married and gave them grandchildren.
John, my husband, received his Ph.D. in languages and literature from Hopkins, married, also had two children, only they were boys. He taught college level French courses. Eventually, his marriage crumbled, and that is when I entered the picture. We’ve been together for 28 years, and married nearly 21 years ago. We also have two children of our own.
This background is included in my tale here in part to show that my husband has been a survivor. Odds were against all four siblings but more so against my husband, who was the oldest, because he felt the responsibility of caring for his younger siblings, even more so after George died. John joined the military during the Korean war years in order to send money home to his sister and also to be able to take advantage of the G.I. bill and go to college after his enlistment period was finished. Nothing came easy for John, especially in his later years when he fell victim to spinal stenosis and ended up in a wheelchair, taking daily doses of oxycontin just to get out of bed each morning. Yet he continued to go out the door to work each day. He still does.
It was a shock to him when Henri died. Yet Henri’s health had been fading for a bit, especially after a few strokes. He seemed to recover, but with problems. Those problems took their toll and he died after an emergency visit to the hospital. Henri’s wife, Christine, made out okay because she had the house and Henri had excellent life insurance. Plus, she received social security and had a huge savings account. Christine has always been very cautious with money, as are many who lived through the depression years and who, like Christine, survived a childhood during WWII and it’s aftermath in Europe. While she’s always been thoughtful where our kids are concerned, sending generous checks on birthdays and holidays, she figured that because we were adults, my husband and I never needed anything. So it was with surprise that I read the message in her email two weeks ago.
She offered, for John’s birthday, to cover all expenses at a nice restaurant for the four of us. If I could tell her the name of a place where he would enjoy a birthday dinner, she would make all the arrangements and the four of us could get whatever we wanted, on her.
“Don’t hold back,” she wrote, “After all, this is something to celebrate. John will be 80 years old. He’s the first Clarke in generations to make it to that age. It’s a momentous occasion, making it to your 8th decade of life.”
I was so taken aback by her offer, yet due to circumstances it was one that would be nearly impossible to accept. His birthday was on Good Friday; he had to work that day, and he takes a mobility bus home. Often, mobility is late, and there would be no guarantee as far as timing. He gets very tired, too, at the end of each work day, and more so, at the end of the work week. I knew he would appreciate much more his favorite rib eye steak with wine sauce, cooked by yours truly, with some asparagus and fresh baked baguette. Topped by an ice-cream cake, this would be the birthday dinner most pleasing and doable for him. He wouldn’t have to worry about getting dressed up, and neither would we. Although we manage to pay our bills and such, with a 19 year old son starting college and John’s current medical expenses, we don’t have extra for appropriate clothing to go out anywhere fancy right now. It’s just not a priority.
All this was told to Christine in my reply. Along with a huge “thank you” for the offer. I re-read the reply twice to make sure I was not offending her in any way, because I knew this was a big deal for her. And I wrapped up my reply with, “He’ll love a card, I’m sure.” Then I clicked “send”. Immediately after doing so, I told my daughter what just transpired. My son overheard. Both of them burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?,” I asked, “I thought I sent a decent reply?”
“You did!,” the both said, “Only you forgot to add one thing!”.
“What’s that? I thought I covered everything.”
“Daddy will be 79, not 80!”.