Tomorrow is my birthday.
Yesterday I received word that my grandfather died. He was ninety. He met my father when my father was five. He married my grandmother, adopted my father, and took them out of the bare bones town where they lived. I went there once. It was a square and a dirt road. The largest building was a post office. This is why I like The Last Picture Show. It is home.
My grandfather started smoking at eighteen when he enlisted and received cigarettes in his rations; they all did. He died of emphysema. He quit school after the eighth grade. He had memorized hundreds and hundreds of poems. He read constantly. I once saw him walk in off the street and win a spelling bee, stunning the college professor judges.
I know he gave my father and grandmother a second life, a new life, a home in the country with land and sky, where my father found arrowheads and read comic books and wrote for nature journals and went to college. I know my father was born into poverty, but I know that the life his stepfather gave him was better, a life of freedom, possibility, space, and family.
My father was born into rural isolation. That was hard.
I live now in a kind of urban isolation. I have to say, that is hard sometimes, too.
I was so fortunate, unlike my father and his before him, to be born into a life where it was a certainty that I would go to college and beyond, where I was given music lessons, where we always had enough to eat. But I am sad that life today means my friends are an hour away, nature is a vacation, and the neighbors are strangers. I live in a city of dark circles and scowls. I live in a city of mental illness, homelessness, insecurity, and anxiety. When I first moved here, I coughed for a month straight. I suppose I would scowl too.
Except I don’t.
I am happy with my age and my weight and my marriage and my job. I will smile at you on the street. I will pick up that penny. I do have a jingle bell in my pocket. My shoes cost seven dollars. It’s true, I hate shopping. It’s true, I sassed William Morris. I am sorry if it confuses you, New York. I came here for love, not fame, not a career. I am here for love and family. And I will love you and be happy.
I know I can’t change this city. But I also refuse to allow it to change me.
This year for my birthday, I am going to go upstairs to see what exactly that hammering-running sound is that starts up around eight a.m. and why the neighbors feel compelled to vacuum after midnight. But I am also going downstairs to check on my favorite neighbor, the elderly retired history professor. I am going to the laundry to see if I run into Diana and Forest, the top floor to say hi to Nadine. I am holding my husband’s hand. I am mourning my grandfather. I am living the only way I can: which is to love fiercely and honestly.
Hey New York: have something to eat. Stop smoking. Call your family. Tell the truth. Tell someone you love them. Love yourself. Do you know your neighbors’ names? Here is what I want for my birthday: learn them.