Happy Birthday! You'd be 75 tomorrow. Yesterday, on the phone, Mommy reminded me that you're like another, Jack - Jack Kennedy. You are forever 44 - youthful, handsome, and full of promise. We never saw what became of your life. Then again, you never saw what became of ours. I've never written to you before, even though it's been suggested that I do. At first, my reluctance had to do with a fear that you wouldn't hear me. Now it's clear to me that I didn't write because I'll never get an answer. For me, the hardest part of growing up without you has been wondering what you would think of me and if I made you proud. People have been kind enough to say that you would be, but really, what do they know about your hopes and dreams for me? I wish you were here to see my children and let us throw you a birthday party. I'm really good at that - birthdays. Everyone in my house gets breakfast cake - because birthdays are special and they should start out special from the very beginning of the day (before something terrible happens threatening to ruin the whole day). At least we had cake. At least...
Your birthday party is in the Tap Room at the New York Athletic Club. Through the lobby, up the stairs on the left, and behind the swinging leather doors. I rented the whole place for the evening. They're all here for you. Now that I am not the 7-year-old girl you knew, I am allowed in there. And women, we're full members now and we drink at the bar just like the men. It's fall in New York - that season that smells like leaves, freshly sharpened pencils and stale wool that's been hiding in a closet for months. It's much more intimate than the over 400 people who showed up at your funeral but these are the people who are closer.
I went with plain white tablecloths; the centerpieces are mums. I agonized over this decision because I think they aren't the nicest flowers, but you liked them and they remind me of a day we spent in Cold Spring Harbor. What were your favorite flowers? One more thing I just don't know about you. The menu - that was easy - NY Sirloin with potatoes and root vegetables. Three sauces will be served on the side (Bernaise because even though everyone is on cholesterol medication now, it's delicious and Mommy insisted, Bordelaise because I remember your ordering it once at Ottomanelli's, and Peter Luger's because the best is always the best). Cesar salads sans anchovies will be plated before people sit down. For some reason, I think your cake should be dark chocolate with white lettering. Instead of table numbers, I have pictures of you at different times in your life. Mommy is terribly nervous and giving the event planner a hard time. She'll settle down once everyone is eating. I've already warned the service staff to remove the empty glasses from the table before she notices they are empty. She never re-married. "Why would I?" she always asks.
I hired an Irish band to play and you will sing along. Since it's my imagination and money is no object, I managed to invite Willie Nelson, too. Alas, TSA gave him a hard time and he's probably not going to make it in time. He's still alive. When I lived in New Orleans, near the train tracks and the River, I thought of you and his songs every single day. Willie played a rally for a Senate candidate in Austin over the weekend (I live in Texas now). I didn't go because I went to a dinner party instead. While I try not to judge myself - I do. So I sent the candidate more money and crossed my fingers that he wins. Please don't hold that against me. Nobody's perfect. Not even you - even though my memory of you is one of perfection.
I'd love to talk to you about my imperfections - maybe you could help me gain some perspective on them. If I could just hear you say, "You did the right thing..." Just once. This is when I feel my faith failing me. When people told me you were looking down from Heaven and smiling - I'd smile politely but want to punch them. They didn't know any better than I did where or what you are. I am only sure of the love I felt when we were together. That is real. It is real because, I miss it so much, at times I can't even bring myself to breathe. I hold the hurt in my lungs until I imagine them bursting. My eyes open and I gasp as if I've been under water. Grief is not water, instead of drowning once, you drown again and again.
We've filled the room with people from different stages of your life - Uncle Brian and Aunt Jane are with their respective families at one table. Grandma and Uncle Tom have died but Tom's family will all join us. I used pictures of you as children that your siblings were kind enough to send me after Grandma died. While I try my best to keep in touch, I get angry that they never call me first. Death makes things awkward. I think Theresa and I were hard for Grandma.
How do you watch the children of your child grow up when your own child is dead? She gave me a pair of gold earrings from Tiffany's when I graduated from Holy Cross. Did I mention that I went to Holy Cross, like you? Beaven Hall is made up of classrooms now - I think I took logic in a room where you might have slept. I received a tremendous education there but went for the wrong reasons. I never found you there. For me, it's a place filled with ghosts and I struggled socially. You were right that I was a weird kid. Now, I've grown up and I am eccentric - which is much better than being weird. So I've got that going for me.
At the Holy Cross table, some of your friends managed to come down from the Cape and in from Long Island with their wives. The photo of your doomed-from-the start rugby team sits in a small frame. They'll drink beer and consider the state of the world today. Speaking of which, Donald Trump is the President of the United States. Remember his TV commercials from the 1980's? "You're the King, You're the King of the Castle. Trump Castle Hotel and Casino, Baby, Baby do we know..." Well, he's the President now. I hope you don't have to watch the dumpster-fire that is American politics these days. People voted for the Atlantic City casino guy. A whole lot of people voted for the Atlantic City Casino guy!
After that happened, I was a captain for a group of Junior League women in the Women's March. Women all over the world took to the streets. We were peaceful - very few arrests, no violence. I wore the pearls Grandma gave me. Lately, I am furious at the power struggle with men and wonder if we women should have burned our cities to the ground. Then again, we have our children and their futures to consider - we won't destroy the world. We keep it safe because we play a long game, a different game. This long game is the one where we protect the Earth from polluters, save a little money so the kids don't drown in debt, and give health care to everyone. It's the Earth where not only do we believe that education can fix things but also we believe in it enough to pay to fix education. The politicians on either side care for none of this. Instead, they spend time arguing about people who have the temerity to exercise their right to free speech (Both sides are not doing well on the free speech front - but that's another letter entirely. I never went to law school so my views are probably not as nuanced as they should be).
My children are at your party but will leave early with a sitter. Like you, I don't think that children after 8 p.m. are the same adorable creatures who wake smiling at 6 a.m. Ellie is 9. She has dark blond hair, blue eyes, a great smile and intelligence that scares me ( I haven't told her that she's smarter than me - I'm not ready to give her the upper hand). She is asynchronicity at its best - she wants to be a physicist and has me looking up the Higgs Boson particle and the Hadron collider one minute and she can't figure out why a friend found her constant interruptions during conversation annoying the next minute. I worry that she will be lonely, or more lonely than most people. I was lonely. I am lonely. What's different now is that I suspect everyone is lonely, even if they don't admit it. Our own minds are a complex universe that we can only share with others in small amounts. Only you know your thoughts at 3 a.m. Would you be appalled, if you could hear mine?
My little son, Jack, is 2. He is playing with his diggers under a table. I popped the collar on his blue blazer and he has charmed the socks off of all the grandmothers. How do I bring up my son not to be part of the problems I see in the world, not to take advantage of the advantages conferred upon him by birth as a white male? How do I tell him that while patriarchy is the problem, he is good and kind and doesn't have to be part of the problem? I guess I'll tell him about how you stood up for your daughters to a church that says we can't be leaders simply because we are women. It's not enough, but I'll take whatever help I can get. Remember how you told me, in our country, we prefer 100 guilty men to go free vs. 1 innocent man wrongly going to prison? Also, remember that you told me picking on someone who's weaker than you is so much worse than picking on someone in general? Turns out - these things really hard for people to grasp. I wish I could ask you about what's happening in the Courts. I hope to believe that you have the same opinions of how a Supreme Court Justice should conduct himself, but I wish I could be sure. Then again, I am sure. Having spent so much of my life unsure of things, I am now here, almost forty, and quite sure of several things.
- The whole world must play the long game. I will do my part and play the long game. Sometimes, this will mean my family pays higher taxes - that is nothing compared to the sacrifices parents make on an individual level for their children every single day. I will watch my carbon footprint and reduce my consumption of red meat. My priority is my children. I will pretend to be an optimist until I am one.
2. Our children (ALL CHILDREN) deserve better than they are getting. They always have. The degree to which children are forced to grow up early and suffer for the convenience of adults is a collective failure. We adults need to do better. Children deserve to play and discover, to fall and get back up, and to laugh until the milk comes out their noses.
3. When I take my children to the beach, I feel closest to you. We joined the Swordfish Cub in Westhampton. I think of you and I climbing on the jetties that were almost over my head. Now, those same jetties are completely buried in the sand. Like everything else that time covers over, the core of the memory is there, underneath the sand, holding us together.
4. Wire hangers from the dry cleaners, left alone in dark closets, breed like rabbits.
6. I will always miss you. Also, I miss me with you. I miss knowing that the world may be a hard place but that you would always love me, no matter what.
As I write this, a bell on my porch is ringing - it's from Arco Santi. We kept the bell you bought there on the porch for years until Mommy sold the house and moved into a nice condo. I read about urban planning - something that had become a passion for you before you died. It's fascinating. It's also humbling - I live behind a gate, in a big house, on the edge of a nature preserve. It's beautiful and I love it - but I don't see things. I don't see poverty like I did as a child growing up in New York City. My children don't know how to ride public buses ( working on that - I promise). Someday, I want to go to Arco Santi.
In the mean time, I spend time working part-time, volunteering at schools and in the community. It feels scattered and unfinished and I hate answering the question, "What do you do?' because my answer is not succinct and the messiness bothers me. You wanted me to accomplish so much - I want to accomplish so much too. I think I just need a little more time - a luxury never afforded to you and one that worries me everyday. That imaginary hour glass hovers over me. I hate being late and I am constantly afraid of running out of time. That is my fear - that I won't have enough time and my children will be left without me, constantly aware of my absence.
Well, it's time to blow out your candles. Everyone is singing and a waiter volunteered to take the pictures. Happy birthday - we can't celebrate three quarters of a century or even half a century. Instead, we can celebrate our capacity to love and remember. You are not forgotten. When you died and I went to say a prayer at your coffin I promised I wouldn't forget you. I kept my promise. You promised you'd always love me and never leave - sometimes I think you broke that promise. Today, I'll find some way to believe you.
Don't forget to make a wish.
All my love,