There are days that change us. That become the oak trees by which we know our life turned. This is one of those days in my history.
On this day twenty-nine years ago, the eve of my thirteenth birthday, my grandfather died.
I was called out of class to the office with teenage oooohs following me. My father stood waiting for me. I can see the clothes he wore, the vehicle he drove. But I cannot hear his voice. I only know what he said.
We went to my aunt’s house, where family would gather in great numbers over the next hours and days. My grandmother sat on the couch like stone. I wept on a bed not my own as my parents traveled to my sister’s school out of town.
Where I’m from, we feed mourners. Food piled on every surface of my aunt’s kitchen and dining room. People poured into the house. It was like an upside down family reunion.
The next day, I received word that I was wanted in the kitchen. When I arrived, everyone sang “Happy Birthday” around me and a mourners’ cake with a candle slid into the center.
It was the kindest birthday celebration I’ve ever had. To be thirteen and remembered in the midst of everyone’s pain and loss. It was so bizarre and surreal. But I was not alone.
Every January 29th my mind wanders back to that place, that time. I try to remember how the cake tasted. I try to remember whether I thanked anyone.
The strongest of emotions rush back at me. Love. Loss. Family.
Like it was just today.
Time is funny like that.
My thirteenth will never be my favorite birthday, but it will ever be the one I recall most sharply. I learned across those two days that I can always celebrate the good and love my people no matter what else swirls about us.