Shared birthday invites memories of grandfather

Where is he?

It was my first thought as my family started singing “Happy Birthday.” Everybody was smiling, my mom sitting in a white plastic chair at the table laughing at Grandma, who was completely out of tune.

Dad was running around, trying to catch my best angle for the picture. He is going to fail, like always. My aunt, sitting next to my mom, held her glass of wine higher as she cheered for me and my long-lasting health.

I was the only one who wasn’t celebrating. I hated myself for thinking that question.

Where is he?

There was a promise before I was born, a promise made by my mom in the hospital. As she ate her dinner, she swore to my grandfather that he would get his granddaughter as a present for his birthday. He laughed and told her not to rush. But anyone who knows my mom knows she keeps her promises.

My earliest memory is of my grandpa drawing swans with me. The lines were shaky as he put them on paper. He never used bright colors like I did; he mixed them with water and made them soft, almost clear.

Over the years, we began to grow apart. He was living in a different city than me, a bigger village that was more peaceful than my own. I thought about all the things we could do together whenever he came to visit, but we never tried any of them.

Every time my grandfather visited, he would go on and on about how great my brother and cousin were.

I remember sitting on the couch, listening to him tell stories of how wonderful they were.

“Thomas is an amazing kid! Can you believe he is so talented?”

My mom nodded. “I must say he is.” Looking my way, she said, “Did you hear that Aneta won her first competition?”

“Did you really?” Grandpa looked my way. I smiled and nodded. He remained silent, sipping his tea. A flush of embarrassment showed on my cheeks as I excused myself. I cried myself to sleep that night.

As the years passed, I found myself crying over my grandpa again. But this time, it wasn’t about me.

I wasn’t crying because he didn’t recognize my accomplishments.

I cried because my grandfather lay in my bed with a tumor in his kidney.

“Hey Grandpa, I will just grab my stuff and be out in a minute.” Five months had passed since my grandpa started living in my room while I slept in the living room. Cancer was spreading through his veins, and we could do nothing about it. All that was left to do was support him as much as we could.

“Hey, what about you sit with me?” he said. “When I started to be sick, you stopped telling me everything. I may not have a great body, but my brain is still great.” He smiled at me from the bed.

And so I sat with him. I talked to him. I told him about the girl in school who was mean to me. I told him about an upcoming competition that was making me nervous. I told him everything. He listened, he gave advice. He promised to never leave.

It wasn’t the first promise he broke. But it was the first promise he didn’t have any power over.

And so, on our shared birthday, there is no second cake this year. But when I see my mom laughing at my Grandma’s singing, I see Grandpa, too, because that’s something he always did.

When I see dad running around with the camera and taking pictures, I hear Grandpa. “Pictures are memories,” he would say.

I can feel him here when my aunt toasts to my long-lasting health; although her words are quieter, they sound like his.

Maybe he didn’t break his promise after all.