I am still a such a kid when it comes to birthdays. I still love the food and fun, the off-key singing, the warmth and glow and light and presents. Yes, I know that material wealth does not avail, but I love receiving (and giving) gifts. I can’t help it.
At the same time, birthdays are also a bit melancholy. As each year passes, I find myself reflecting on those things I have not yet done, and the speed with which time seems to pass these days. That mix of joy and anticipation with reflection and blues often leaves me quiet, recollected, and prayerful—which, in the end, is not a bad place to be.
Nevertheless, when my 43rd birthday rolled around on Friday, I struggled a bit. Jodi and I worked during the day, which is not unusual, but Gabe needed to work late afternoon through early evening. In addition, a couple of conversations with my bride (one somewhat veiled, one not so much) led me to believe that she was struggling to come up with a gift of any sort, much less the one she hoped to purchase. It was shaping up to be a subdued celebration.
So when Emma was offered a babysitting gig for Friday evening, I sighed and surrendered. We would celebrate Saturday, gift or no gift.
Friday morning dawned with early-morning prayer and birthday greetings (in person and via Facebook), then breakfast as a family—the one extraverbal indication that the day was special. Ordinarily we abstain from meat on Fridays, but given the day, we agreed that if we wished, we could given up something else as allowed by the Church. (I gave up hot water for my shower, and scrubbed briskly before work.) We ate bacon and eggs and banana bread, a delicious birthday treat from the Engel clan, then went our separate ways.
Work was work that morning: plenty to do and pressed for time. I left work early for Confession and spiritual direction, gifts that continue to give even to this moment. In particular, Father spoke to me of looking for God in each situation, each day, intentionally seeking and following his will.
I returned home to work a bit more and greet Lily on her return from kindergarten, then the other kids as they arrived. The two older ones left, Jodi returned home, and we spent a relatively uneventful evening at home.
On Saturday, my birthday observed, I rose at 4:30 a.m. to spend an hour in Adoration. I set aside my rosary and spiritual reading, and the hour sped by in silent conversation with the Lord. I came home and ate, showered, and readied myself for Mass and the second of two personal formation sessions for the Catechetical Institute.
It was pushing noon when I returned home. I left the extended silence and reflection of the morning and plunged into a bustling, noisy house filled with laughter, music, and conversation, punctuated by exclamations of command or frustration elicited by our now 15-week-old Airedale puppy. I was craving lunch and—if I’m honest—peace and quiet.
The early afternoon flew by, a blur of busy-ness that accomplished (for my part) very little. Emma made a what promised to be a delicious apple-pumpkin bundt cake with butter-and-brown-sugar icing; Jodi was thawing spicy Italian sausage for her famous lasagna—and I was out of sorts: unable to strike the right balance between enjoying this extended birthday and accomplishing at least a couple of the weekend tasks I had set for myself.
We opened gifts after lunch: I received a small but powerful LED lantern (thanks to Amazon’s next-day shipping), a note enabling me to download the tremendous Ignatius Press audiobook version of Chesterton’s Manalive, a twelve-pack of Vernors from Gabe, and a pack of peanut butter M&Ms from Lily. (The latter didn’t last 15 minutes.) I was grateful, but still growly. Jodi and I took a walk with Bruno and ran another couple errands, and it occurred to me: I was blowing it. I was flitting through the day, not looking for God, not being intentional, and finding neither joy nor peace.
So I did what any man would do: I retreated to the garage.
I packed and lit a pipe, and puffed and puttered around the garage, recalling blessed I truly am, and how close God has been these past several months. I thought of the tremendous dinner and dessert that awaited me before long; the well-wishes, cards, and gifts; and then I remembered that Jodi, Lily, and I were going to the high-school musical, Cinderella, after dinner. The high-schoolers do a tremendous job every year with the show; I knew a number of the performers, would see numerous friends, and would likely laugh until my sides hurt.
Jodi’s lasagna was perhaps the best she has ever made, and that’s saying something. (The first thing she ever cooked for me was lasagna, and that was the beginning of more than just friends.) Emma’s cake was outstanding, and she is already tweaking it in her mind to make it better still. The play was wonderful, as always; the delight of Lily during the performance and of the actors afterward was infectious—and I received an unexpected bear-hug from one of my dear Poland daughters who was in back in town from college.
I found joy, love, beauty, and peace. And where those thing are, so is He.