“Thirty-four years ago today…” – a phrase often heard in my home, only the number changing. It was the annual birthday greeting for my brothers, sister, and me; for years the first words heard in the morning or, after leaving home, on the phone when the annually-expected call came. “Thirty-four years ago today….”
With four kids in the family, each year marker was spoken four times, at roughly two-year intervals. Because of our moves, those markers were voiced in different homes, different states, different countries: twelve in Minnesota, Texas, and Canada; fourteen was heard in Texas, twice in British Columbia, and in Los Angeles. Three heard sixteen in Canada—one of those in a hospital bed—and one in Germany. And eighteen…only three times spoken.
That Canadian hospital bed was but a precursor to a more permanent rest that would strike before the third of us would reach that magic number of adulthood, the age at which one could drive and vote, the rite of passage so long anticipated. Three months early; three months premature—no, more than that: a life cut short too young, too much left undone.
And so, the “…years ago today” shifted, from June 30 to March 26. Reset. In 1981 it was, “a year ago today;” in ’85, “five years ago today.” For years, phone calls and cards came on that day, bringing with them the burden-bearing encouragement that even a distant friend remembers – and cares.
We remember thirty-four years ago today: the call, the drive, the airport, the bittersweet reunion…the words, “He’s gone.” The memories are vivid, like an old rerun but in HD. And yet….
Slowly, over time, as the anniversaries drifted into double digits, the phone calls and cards on that day stopped. The wounds of death healed, leaving their mark like an old, familiar scar, but without the chronic pain of an open wound. And then one day, a call – and a realization: “I hadn’t thought about it.” Not a forgetting, but an awakening; the hole in the heart, the hole in life, had become so familiar, so normal, so present that it no longer demanded constant awareness. It’s just there. Life has gone on around the hole; the hole itself is no longer the center of attention, no longer the defining element. Shaping, yes; defining, no.
And as life goes on we celebrate this: his life began…thirty-four years ago today.