I will celebrate my 55th birthday on October 2 in Stokes State Forest in New Jersey. While turning 55 may not be a tectonic event for some, it is for me because it is the age my father was when he died. A beautiful childhood friend of mine, Patty Costello, lost her mother when her mother was only in her forties. Patty wrote me once that when she reached the same age, she held her breath the whole year. As I write these words, by the way, I realize I need to reach out to Patty. She was here on this coast not long ago, we got our signals crossed on a day we were to meet and then when she called, the depression I still grapple with had wrestled me to the ground and answering a phone or making a call was, and in some ways, still is, tantamount to climbing Everest without oxygen.
I have chosen Stokes Forest for this birthday because my father and I went there twice when I was a boy. He had gone there when he was a boy. Both times we went we were in heaven. In fact, once, when our rented time in the cabin was up, we were having so much fun we wanted to extend our stay. My father looked into the matter. He was told our cabin was booked but the folks at Stokes were nice enough to let us move into a larger cabin, at the same price, so we could have another couple of days together. The people who work at Stokes were very nice to my father and me then and, I can tell you, in the conversations I have had with them around my upcoming visit, the people who work there are still wonderfully kind and pleasant and attentive.
They are patient with, well, the likes of me, say. I was talking with one woman and asked if when I arrived I should just go straight to my cabin. They send you lots of information along with your cabin number before your visit. She was very nice and said yes, I could do this if I want, but I might be want to drop by the office for the moment.
I said I’d be delighted to say hello to everyone. She said they would be equally delighted to give me the key to the cabin. A key – go figure.
I will be there four nights. I will arrive on September 29 and leave on October 3. The question for me was what could I build into the time that would honor my father and bring him closer to me than he already is on a daily basis. I assure you I am repeating myself when I say that my father was and is the greatest gift life has ever given me. Other than the bathroom, his picture is in every room in my home, and his twigs are here as well.
Perhaps I should explain the twigs. My father died on August 16, 1969. He is buried in Kennilworth, New Jersey, not far from Elizabeth, New Jersey where he was born on February 20, 1914 and where he was raised. I visit his grave on a regular basis. One day, nearly 30 years after he died, I was standing by his grave. I found myself thinking that after so many years his body had begun to decompose which meant his body was feeding the soil which also meant, I realized, that the soil that was feeding the beautiful Oak Tree that offered his resting place shade and shelter had my father in it. Looking at the tree, I realized that in a very real way my father was part of the tree. I then noticed all the little branches and twigs that the tree scattered on the ground, like most trees do as the seasons move along. I gathered up a handful of twigs and took them home. Now, whenever I visit him, I gather up more twigs. By having a twig with me, I have part of my father with me. As you may have already guessed by now, I will be bringing some of the twigs to Stokes Forest with me. I will leave one in the earth by the cabin when my visit there is done.
My mind has turned to other things I can include in my visit to Stokes Forest to bring my father close. For instance, I have, I think, successfully hunted down a place to buy an Entenmann’s Walnut Danish Ring. My father and I used to love to warm them in the oven and have a piece with a morning cup of coffee. It will be the perfect breakfast for my birthday morning.
I will also bring a recording of violinist Jascha Heifitz paying Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61. It was written in 1806 and my father and I loved it. We listened to it many times. I remember one night the two of us sitting side by side on the couch conducting to the music. When the music ended, we looked at each other, smiled, nodded in agreement, and listened to it all over again (and conducted it all over again, thank you very much).
I plan on bringing my father’s copy of Don Marquis’ book “Archy and Mehitabel,” a delightful book about Archy, a cockroach who has the soul of a poet, and Mehitabel, a cat who claims she was Cleopatra in a previous life. There are still pages in this book marked by paper clips placed there by my father. They will never be removed.
I cannot say how this time will go, other than I am sure it will be, for me, deeply memorable. Moreover, it will give me time to be in the quiet of things. I know before my time is up I want to touch as many human hearts as I can in life, help them discover hope, help them discover that in bleakest of times, hope is there, even though it my be out of conscious touch and view. I want to help as many huma hearts know that every moment they are in has value and worth simply because they are in it. As a very dear friend said to me of the moment we are in, “It is the only place you have to be.” Even if those moments are the last in life, they are still yours, and still of marvelous worth and value simply because they are yours and you are present.
I don’t at all mean to sound maudlin or morose. I am feeling anything but about this birthday, this special time. The day of turning 55 and the days of being in Stokes close to my father. I will, for the days I am there, set aside much of what draws my focus now. My just begun journey to get back onto the rolls of disability, the finish strides on the final draft of a memoir, a book on my 15 years experience in the field of brain injury as one who loves with one, and then two other books, novels, that are nestled safe in my heart.
For now, my mind is on preparing for Stokes Forest, celebrating my 55th birthday, and rejoicing in the fact that while my father will not be with me physically, he will be in my heart, warm and close, just like he is every day of my life. Just maybe a little closer at Stokes. After all, as of October 2, we will be the same age.