The Best Present

I feel as if I could write a book about last night’s birthday party at my parents’ home here in Cambridge. The highlight was my mother’s tapping her glass and asking everyone at the table to say a few words about the birthday boy, beginning with my father, moving to his left. If it had been an AA meeting, someone might have said “I’m just here to listen, I’ll pass.” But everyone said something that touched me, beginning with my sister Steph, then my son-in-law Joe, Fifi, my niece Fran, nephew Seth, Mom, daughter Sarah, Seth’s wife Rebecca, Steph’s partner Tim, and daughter Roo. In the middle of the night I lay awake for a while pondering all the nice things that had been said around that table. They left me energized to fill in the gaps in a better portrait of myself than the one I usually carry around in my head. This morning on the third floor I am listening to a CD that Roo gave me, by Jack Johnson. “I figured your rap collection is pretty complete,” she said, and sure enough this is a mellow, beautiful collection of simple songs about life. I’m remembering Sarah’s comment about how unusual it is to be noticed and listened to as well as she feels noticed and listened to by me. Also, my father’s thoughtful ruminations about my wanderings West and East, and my mother’s remembering how as a boy I impressed her by closely observing and commenting on situations. Once when we drove to Mrs. Crowell’s house, Mom wanted me to take something to the door, but I was too timid to go. Stephie went, prompting me to tell my mother while we waited for her to return, “She may be small, but she sure is brave.”

Actually, that comment gave rise my moment of most spiritual grace during the evening. Up till then I had been in a zone of bliss, listening to each person as if they were an angel coming to urge me forward in my life. But when Mom recounted the story of the errand at Mrs. Crowell’s, I felt that boy’s embarrassed shyness, a feeling that often recurs in the man, and I felt the competition between me and my sister, who seemed at first to get the better billing in this story. I felt a barbed comment form in my mind that would have tumbled me from grace and ruined the flow–“Wait a minute, this is MY birthday, not HERS!”. But the words never made it past a kind of spiritual zapper, a safety net made of kind restraint. If I am making any spiritual progress in my life, it showed in that moment of not getting snagged on old stuff, of letting a childishly selfish and fearful thought simply move on through my mind without hurting anyone in the real world. It was a tiny victory for the man I would like to think I am becoming, mainly due to the inspiration and example I get at AA meetings, where I learn over and over than no one has a family free from pain and conflict. But a family that keeps moving forward in time, growing together, is an incredible source of strength and wisdom. A deeper awareness of that truth about my own family is by far the best present that I received the year I turned 55.

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