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Birthday Cake

Today has not been great. Woke up with a very sour stomach that insisted I stay in bed and chill out. All day. Off and on I’ve slept. Thankfully, my dad came over and picked up my daughter so at least she could enjoy a day filled with eating out, playing over at NanaPapa’s (my parents) and attending a birthday party. Birthday party…hmmm…birthday cake. Even through my nausea, the thought of birthday cake still entices me. I adore birthday cake. Always have. Of course I won’t get any. The cake will be gobbled up by a slew of little girls, so fast I’ll bet they will hardly let it linger long enough in their sweet small mouths to actually taste the rich butter cream frosting surrounding dewy decadence. Can you tell I’m getting hungry? Sacked out in bed all day, I mostly avoided food as my innards were not interested. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was channel surfing a pitiful selection of programs. How is it that I pay top dollar for premium channels in addition to basic cable and with 300 channels to choose from, I can find absolutely nothing worth watching? Desperation eventually drops me off at the door of whatever’s on E! Currently it’s “Child Stars all Grown Up”. Like watching paint dry, I tuned in long enough to find out what the kids from Forrest Gump are up to now before throwing in the towel and turning to the Internet.

When I was growing up, and if you are anywhere near my age (pushing 40, which I’m really OK with) you’ll perhaps recall this, too. TV consisted of 3 network stations and PBS. I was the living, breathing remote control before remote controls came into existence. I’d take my place at the end of my grandparent’s couch, closest to the TV, so I could get up to change the channel when needed. The channel changer on our TV was essentially a big doorknob that I skillfully twirled around according to the direction coming from across the room reclining in a Lazy Boy. Grandpa loved his Lazy Boy. He would spend hours happily reclining.

In the years before my grandma died, both of my grandparents smoked. Grandpa would collapse into his Lazy Boy as grandma took to her own recliner next to his, and both would light up and every so often, when the cigarettes needed their ashes flicked, it was into ash trays perched atop 3 foot tall pedestals that accompanied each lounger. I distinctly remember endless fun spent playing with a carton of cigarettes at my beloved grandparent’s feet. I would pull out all of the packs of cigarettes and like building blocks, I’d design different shapes and structures, always enjoying the feel of the shrink wrap and the squishy consistency of a full pack of cigarettes enclosed in my toddler hands. I lived to see my grandparent’s faces fill with pride and smiles as I’d confidently display my cigarette pack creations. It’s a miracle I never became a smoker myself, given how much time I spent clutching those packs. Truth be told, like most young dumb kids, I did try to smoke a cigarette my freshman year of high school. It didn’t take many puffs for me to realize I could never ever get past the sickening way it made me feel. I just about threw up on the spot. Yuck. Thankfully my body was smart enough to physically reject something my brain obviously thought was a good idea at the time.

But I digress. As far as memories of my grandma go, I really only have one my mind can muster up. Back in that cozy little living room, a special treat was always enjoyed once a week when Hee Haw came on. My grandma LOVED Buck Owens, and every time we’d snuggle up on the couch together, she’d announce, “Now remember, I get Buck Owens, you can have Roy Clark!” Which was actually OK with me as I loved them both equally and at 4 years old I had yet to understand what it meant to “get” someone.

One day, after I’d been picked up by my mom and taken home following more living room fun, my grandma returned from a grueling day at work, waiting tables in a local cafe. She told my grandpa she was exhausted and needed a nap before dinner. As grandpa went out to grab carry-out from Skyline Chili, she laid down to sleep on that living room couch and never woke up. Grandpa found her after arriving home with their meals, realizing she was gone when he tried to wake her. She was 62 years old. I was 5.

From then on, my grandpa and I were inseparable. He spent most of the rest of his life just being there for me, as I was always there for him. I’ll never forget the absolute safety I felt whenever we were together. Secure in that he loved me unconditionally, comforted by his constant presence. Whether we were playing catch out on his postage-stamp size yard, or counting the different colored cars that cruised past us below where we sat on his concrete front porch in rusty fold out chairs, or simply cuddled up together on his Lazy Boy, we knew one thing would always be certain. We had each other to lean on. To this day I can still vividly hear the whispering sound of his soft breathing as he’d doze off in his lounger, my child arms wrapped around him, inhaling the familiar mixture of Old Spice and Vitalis that kept his greying hair in place. I carry that memory with me always, like an imaginary hug to hold on to.

He joined grandma when he was 89 years old. I was 23. At the end, like so many before him, his mind betrayed him. As it became increasingly clear that his memory was vanishing, I tried desperately to encourage him to hang on to his memory of me. I will never forget one time in particular, when I visited him at his nursing home on his birthday. After decorating his pitiful little room with streamers and a giant handmade sign that read “World’s Greatest Grandpa” that I displayed prominently on his door leading out to a hallway filled with elderly patients strapped in wheelchairs, I knelt beside him now strapped to his own wheelchair. He slowly raised his head and his brilliant blue eyes met mine.
“No matter what, if you are able, please please remember that I love you. I am here for you, grandpa. What’s my name?” With a clearing of his smoke ravaged throat came a weak reply, “Ainsley…you are Ainsley”. Tears streamed down my face as I clung to him, his old body that once labored as a brick layer, so strong and solid, now felt like a scarecrow’s withering in my arms. We celebrated his birthday with his favorite cake, and with the patience of a man who knows his life is coming to a close, he savored every bite of that cake, chewing each piece thoughtfully while smiling his old smile just for me.

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A trip back through time…

Tags

love, 1970s, grandparents, birthday cake, heehaw, lazy boy recliners, old spice

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