Years go by, I say, not like turning pages, but more like passing through from one skin to the next. In that way, I am like a snake. Frankly, I think snakes get a bad rap in the animal kingdom. That’s just my opinion. Except that instead of a fresh new skin, shiny and glistening, I am wrapped in new experiences, each one has shaped me into the man I am today. It’s my birthday. I’m 106. Don’t ask me how I feel. People have been asking me that since I turned 40, like that was some huge milestone. I can never understand how the accumulation of 365 days, or thereabouts, because marking time is not an accurate business, is such an accomplishment. I think more about what I have done in those 365 days that counts as something. Maybe it’s one thing.
As I writer, I have jotted down millions, if not billions of words, in my journal, told countless stories. (I don’t count myself as an author, I’ve never published.) I never thought to count them. My journals sit in a closet collecting dust, and no one, but no one, except me, has read them. You could say, I’ve had quite the nice long conversation with myself. I guess that’s my accomplishment.
My wife will be bringing me a cake in a few hours, maybe sooner. I probably write about that too, but not until later, after I let the experience settle, like the cake. I’ve asked her for a taste of coconut and banana, my favorite flavors. That hasn’t changed since I was a kid. I’m not sure that’s what she’ll bring me. She likes strawberries herself, and says I need fruit in my diet. It’ll help me to live longer. Isn’t that a hoot?
She’s not my first wife. My first wife died at 83. I was just two years older than her. I was supposed to go first. I loved her, like I loved no other. That’s the way it should be; it was the stuff of fairy tales. I rescued her in a way, a damsel in distress. She ran away when she was sixteen because her dad tried to rape her. She had two older sisters, who had to endure his dangerous lust. In her good fortune, she was prepared for the day on which her second oldest sister moved out, damaged, probably with no faith in men that would prevent her from marrying any man, as it turned out. She died a spinster, alone, her life probably ruined from that. I don’t know. I never asked her.
Like something out of the movies, I was moving to Seattle, had designs on becoming an undersea welder. If not, I’d get on some boat to somewhere and see the world. Not bad options as I figured, for a boy growing up in the Midwest. My father was a farmer, and his dreams didn’t take him past that. She showed up at our farm that night she ran away, begging me to take her. I didn’t think I could love her at first, except, that she grew on me. She was pretty, enough, and she poured out her heart to me over what happened with her sisters. I listened, feeling like I wanted to protect her.
We lived in a ramshackle apartment, with barely enough money to buy curtains, and ate PB&J for our meals. I ended up working as a welder, but not on ships, but at a machine shop. I was paid for only the work I could bring in for the company. It took awhile before I had a few good years of experience. As she grew up into a woman, she took care of us. She learned how to cook. She decorated each place we lived in like it would be our last, having some knack on knowing how to make a house a home, like a bird makes a nest. She loved me from the moment she arrived on our farm. In her mind’s eye, she knew what would become of us.
In my mind that could last forever, but somewhere along the way, she got tired of living. She got sick with pneumonia in that final year. When she passed, it took me along while to get back on my feet.
My second wife, the one who is bringing a half-dozen strangers, in joining my own family, to sing Happy Birthday to me, and a newspaper photographer who’ll snap my photo, I met when I was 92. She was in her 50s. Still don’t know her true age. She’s told me, but I think I blocked it out of my memory. I wish I could think less about my own birth. And those dang cards inscribed with sappy sentiments, a waste of money. Isn’t that what it is? My younger brother said it all the time. He said the moment we’re born is the moment we all start to die (now that should be on a card); I’d like to think the opposite, like we add something to the universe each time we come back into a new body. With all the things I’ve seen in life, flashes of the supernatural, I’m not so sure about the dying part. I live with the memory of knowing love. That goes on, right? I mean no one takes that away.
Darla and I, we had kids, a daughter and a son. We were blessed. They take the love we gave them, and that goes on living. They pass that along to their own children. Speaking of… they’ll be coming over today. I can introduce you, if you like.
My second wife, named Darcie, though she’s nearly half my age, looks at me funny when I talk about my youth, like I’m from Mars. She wanted to be with me because a man like me was a dying breed, a real man comfortable in his own skin. She had wasted her youth looking for Mr. Right. Then she found me looking 20 years younger, full of life. At least, that’s what she told me. “I was a good catch,” she said.
I know what you’re thinking about the names. Pretty darn similar. What are the chances? Let me just say one thing about that. Both became good wholesome strong women. They have that in common. Darcie picked up, where Darla left off. As I sit here in my chair at the kitchen table, I look out the window of the farm (we moved back after I retired. Between pension and social security, we do alright. Plus, there’s a little change from the farm and what Darcie makes at nursing.), in between scribbling lines in my journals, however many words that’d be. Once I’m gone, if by chance, my kids or Darcie come across them, bound nonsense or wisdom, however they look at it, I don’t care if they read my story for themselves, of all the things I wasn’t able to tell them in person.
(Alright, the guests are here. Got to go play nice. I meant that in a good way.)
That was one of the nicer birthdays I’ve had in a long time. I could feel those warm fuzzies, my son and daughter, their broods, grandkids and a few great-grandkids, plus a few of the neighbors I’ve waved to going into town. Their names get all blended together. Aside from the candles, and the cake, it’s what I wanted, plus strawberries, Darcie bought me a finch in a large fancy cage. I get it. Good intentions. She wants me to have a companion in the kitchen while I sit and write. She thinks I feel lonely. I can’t help but think of him as a kind of metaphor though. I’m an omniscient force, a god to him, and he’s living in a world, a cage. Sure, Darcie and I provided him nice bedding, shelter, food and water, all the basic needs. My God does the same for me. It made me think about my dreams, my days of living. Of basic needs, which one was most important. An easy answer for me. It’s got to be love. It changed everything for me, as it does for anybody. I have never felt captive here, being human, like I was obligated to suffer a life behind bars, or in human skin.
The next day, my finch Roger chirped incessantly. I heard him. No. I listened to him. He’s joyful and complaining. But so, wasn’t I? I put down my pen and walked his cage to the front porch. I opened the cage door and walked back inside. No one was home, though I announced his release to the ether. “Fly Roger fly, you’re free!” Darcie had gone into town for groceries. I’d soon be out myself, visiting some old pals at the lunch counter, and walking through the park, sitting on the bench, taking in a Legion baseball game, and waiting for some new story ideas to come into my head.
As I was getting ready at the house, pulling up my suspenders, doffing my old red baseball cap, Darcie came in the door yelling for me. “What are you doing Samuel? That bird’s gonna die, if you leave him out there?” she said.
“You mean he’s not gone?” I answered.
“Course he’s not, his poor little heart’s beating out of his chest.”
Walking out of the bedroom on my cane, I saw that she brought him back into the kitchen. She set his heavy cage on the table, but the small door was still open. “He doesn’t know anything about how to survive in nature,” she said. “He doesn’t have a mind like ours to adapt.” Then I looked it up on the computer because I wanted to know. God created more than 10,000 species of birds, living on the planet, most of them roaming the earth free. Didn’t this one deserve the same, the same chance at an untamed life, to taste the raw flavors? Didn’t we?
On the third day since my birthday, I sat the cage next to me in my pickup truck and took him to the middle of the farm. I opened the cage door and shooed him out. He landed on a nearby fence post, refusing to fly. I had to let him go. I climbed back into the truck and headed back to the farm house. As I pressed down on the accelerator, I could hear him chirp, as though yelling out for help. I also heard a hawk let out a bone chilling screech. I hoped he’d survive. No. More than that, I hoped he would thrive, and make a happy way for himself. In my rear-view mirror, I saw him lift off from the fence post, testing the breezes.
“If I was you, I’d want to live hard and free.”
As I pulled up to the house, Darcie wasn’t talking to me. I was already home resting in my easy chair. She saw the empty cage that I sat on the table. Through dinner and our favorite TV program, she stayed silent. Finally, I said, in getting ready for bed, gathering my words. She’d listen if she wanted but pretended to keep reading her romance novel.
“Freedom is the greatest gift,” I began. “Like any thrill in life, it ought to take our breath away. But the reason I do anything Darcie, and you should know by now, is out of love. I let Roger go because I love him, like I love all life. And I’m good with the idea of him being in the open.”
I pulled the string to my nightstand lamp, and watched the light shrink back from my journal sitting there on the top of it, black leather bound on a cherry wood finish—all the answers from what I learned. That one thing stayed the same through all my most cherished memories, love.
That night, I couldn’t remember going to sleep, but had a dream about flying with Roger. We were happy going someplace else.