When I was a little girl I assumed, that on my birthday, I would be princess for a day, receive a perfect gift and have my wishes granted. By the time my forty-ninth birthday approached, I’d long since given up being princess for a day or asking for a specific present though I still made wishes.
With each passing year, it was increasingly clear that life wasn’t fair and premenopausal hormones only weakened my defenses against old losses. My sister had died. My first marriage had ended in divorce. And now that I was almost a half a century old, I figured I should know more answers.
I made a silent birthday wish before my birthday and wished for something big. I wanted to understand the meaning of life. (A bit much, I know.)
On the morning of my birthday, sitting at my desk in the school district administration building where I worked, I stayed alert for cryptic clues in casual conversations with coworkers. I scanned wall posters and emails for hidden messages. I listened for subtle, yet revealing comments made during phone calls.
Four hours went by. Not a clue.
By lunchtime, tired of waiting. I asked my boss, “Tom, do you ever wonder what life is all about?” I leaned forward in anticipation. Tom, a few years older than me, said, “I don’t really know the answer. I guess we just have to be comfortable dealing with ambiguity.”
I considered his answer no answer at all.
Later in the afternoon, a coworker, Dennis, stopped by. “You seem a little sad,” he said. I explained I was confused about the meaning of life. Kind man that he was, if he thought I was being weird he didn’t show it. He paused and said, “I have just the thing for you. It’s a tape. It’s only about ten minutes long and it’s very inspirational!” I asked Dennis to tell me a bit more. He said, “I’d rather you just listen to it.” I became suspicious.
“Is this a promotional tape for a sales operation?”
“Uh…well…yes…but trust me, Barbara, it’s very fulfilling.”
My wish was messing with me.
After work, my husband Bill, (the dear man I married nine years after my divorce) and I left our home in Madison and headed for the Northwoods of Wisconsin where we planned to celebrate my birthday and open up the family lake house in Lac du Flambeau. Traveling along the interstate, driving through a gauntlet of freshly manured farm fields and the rotten egg smell of Mosinee’s paper mill, Bill must have noticed I was unusually quiet. “Honey, this is going to be your best birthday ever,” he said. “I have a wonderful present for you and you are going to love it. It will be an heirloom someday!”
The only thing I owned that I considered an heirloom was a small quilt made by my great grandmother. What did Bill have in mind? A piece of jewelry? Some kind of artwork? Something of historical significance? Though this mystery was intriguing, my wish to understand the meaning of life remained in the forefront.
Once in Minocqua, Bill and I checked into a hotel so we wouldn’t have to open up our lake house in the dark. At 1:30 a.m. we awoke to the sound of pounding water, squeaks, splashes and giggles. The hotel request to avoid the use of jacuzzi bathtubs after 11:00 p.m. had been ignored by the guests in the room above us.
The following morning, we arrived at the lake exhausted. Bill went downstairs to turn on the water pump and discovered a pipe had burst, leaving a puddle of water. I joined him to inspect the damage and discovered lampshades askew, ceiling tiles stained with urine, the linoleum floor peppered with squirrel scat and a dead mouse in the toilet.
Not a good time to ponder the meaning of life.
Bill, sensing my distress, put his arms around me. “Everything will be okay. Let’s take a look at your birthday present.”
“Really Bill? Now?”
He asked me to wait on the screen porch and returned with a long, narrow box wrapped in plain brown paper, certainly the wrong size or shape for any jewelry, painting or pottery. Not in a birthday mood, yet curious, I slowly peeled off the wrapping, opened the box and found a rifle.
“Bill, you know I don’t like to kill things. This is a killing machine!”
“Honey, this is a replica of Annie Oakley’s rifle. It’s lever-actioned. I bought it for you because you told me you liked to shoot tin cans with your grandfather on his farm. Remember how happy you were when you won our family Olympics’ sharp shooting event last year? Did you know that Annie was only five feet tall? She was petite like you and she performed with Buffalo Bill?!” He grinned. “Get it? …BILL!” I couldn’t help but smile.
Later that evening, house cleaned up, running water restored, Bill and I went to a nearby bar that advertised “Food & Pizza.” We ordered the Pizza. Bad decision. Bill’s food poisoning kept us both up most of the night.
The next morning, having given up on finding answers to the meaning of life, I decided to get some fresh air while Bill slept in. I grabbed my new Annie Oakley rifle and set up a target area outside. I positioned empty tin cans on a tree stump, loaded the rifle and shot at a few. Each time my aim was accurate, I imagined my grandpa cheering.
After I unloaded the rifle and put it away, I brought out a lawn chair, a cup of hot coffee and the still wrapped birthday gift my parents had sent me. No place to go, no reason to rush, I sat still and inhaled the nutty aroma of my coffee and the earthy scents of spring. I noticed the reddish buds sprouting from the branches of the maples. I listened to a squirrel rustling in the underbrush nearby and watched a chipmunk pop out of a hole and run across the grass. Life was good. I opened my parents’ present: Tuesdays with Morrie, An Old Man, A Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lessons by Mitch Albom. I read the book in one sitting.
Now, over twenty-five years later, I recall my forty-ninth birthday with fondness. I didn’t recognize the clues to understanding the meaning of life that were offered that weekend. Dennis certainly found meaning in his work and the jacuzzi splashers found meaning in their joy and fun. Morrie found meaning in his service to others.
Like Tom, I’ve learned to live with ambiguity. There is no single answer to the meaning of life. We each decide what makes life meaningful.
Love adds meaning to everything for me. The gifts Bill and my parents gave me on that birthday remain treasures to this day because of the loving thought behind them.
I will always be a curious person, full of questions. There will continue to be a bit of young girl inside me, a bit of Annie Oakley too. Souls don’t have to grow old and stuffy. They can grow wiser.
I still make a wish on my birthday. I try to keep it simple.
What do you wish for?