A Birthday Letter

Your 28th birthday passed quietly today as you sat at work, crunching wistfully on Sun Chips and savoring the last day of the Obama administration. You still don’t feel quite adult (read: millennial syndrome), yet you’ve also never grown “up” as much as you have over the last several months. Most years pass as a dream – you look back and can’t really pinpoint, directly, when or where things happened, only how you felt, generally, over the time. But 2016 was different. It was a skin you stepped into, a film strip that you can rewind and fast forward, revisiting moments and experiencing them with the same immediacy of the present—a tale full of nostalgia, of ecstasy, followed by a deep and resonating sound and fury, signifying…well, everything.

On the eve of your impending 3000-mile move across the country, a close friend of yours passed away from a brain tumor. The loss was cavernous; it still brings fresh pain each time you stumble through another memory of him from the past four years. The last time you heard his voice was a month before his death, when he told you, in stilted sentences over the phone (because the tumor was affecting his speech center), that he needed to call you and be “gushy for a minute.” You refused to believe what he was really telling you in that phrase: that he knew he was going to have to leave this life, that (after two other surgeries) this was the Big One, and he knew. He knew. When you think back to the light tone of your own voice in that conversation, it still makes you sick.

A month later, in June, you and your fiancé packed up your little green Honda civic in a frenzy, tossing climbing shoes on top of the camping gear; on top of the blankets and the two guitars; on top of the dented boxes you shoved haggardly into the car, taking only what (you thought) was necessary. Your bike was left on the side of the curb with a “FREE” sign, new fenders and all, to some lucky kid (you hope). As you weaved in and out of the burgeoning greens of the mountain pass, heading East toward your new life, the two of you spotted a female moose on the side of the road. You had never seen a moose in person before. Luck, you voiced to C, must be on our side. Ahead of you were corners of the great North American landscape you had never seen or touched before. Behind you were friends old and new with whom you had left parts of yourselves — carbon fragments that will forever remain in Oregon, dispersed by the wind to the shoulders of Mt. Thielsen, the snaking river path that hugs Smith Rock, the charming cinder blocks of downtown Corvallis, to rest ultimately in the soul of the Pacific Northwest and the soulmates you met there. These are the romances that Joan Didion told you about, the stories you tell yourself in order to live. Leaving that place created a weight in your chest; in a way, it felt like you were breaking up with Oregon. But the velocity at which your life was moving forward was also the second most thrilling adventure (after that time studying abroad in Greece) of your “adult” life.

Your best friends, still rooted on the East Coast, were about to get married, and damned if you weren’t going to make it home in time for the bachelorette party! It was an exciting summer to be alive: first J & M’s wedding, then your own. At the end of August you were going to be able to use the phrase “my husband” — a prospect that overwhelmed you, for better or for worse. First, though, wild America was calling. Donned with a journal ready on your lap, you were prepared to document the whole trip in word-pictures. A month later you find this entry in your notebook:

Rt. 26 to Boise, across oregon

What we see:

patches of picked scabs on the land. The road followed rivers all the way through oregon. The sagebrush stings my nostrils and leaves me wanting more. We are heading home beyond. Dipping and weaving. Ranch after ranch and many cyclists. Roy Orbison, sing me home!

We named the car Eleanor.

Cows lazily appearing in the desert. Where is home for them? There’s not a structure in sight.

I miss something every time I bough [sic] my head to the page.

Nine hours later, Eleanor was broken down on the side of the highway just over the border into Idaho.

Let the record state that you were actually right about the moose. Luck was on your side, as you had just completed a seven-hour stretch across high desert without cell service or more than a handful of humans in sight. Shivering in the wind of passing 18-wheelers, you and C were only a forty-five minute drive from his sister and grandparents. When told the car would cost $4500 to fix, you sold it and gave the camping gear to the family. Then you and he got on separate planes and flew East, each of you succumbing to a new listless mindspace of what, and where, and who, truly felt like home.

The weddings of Summer 2016 were magical events, each one a story made up of lights and colors, of tears and sweat and bliss. You had found your persons and were surrounded by your people—you can still smell the bonfire in your clothes and hair after you swam in J’s pool long past midnight, everyone sneaking kisses and setting up tents drunkenly in the dark. Here on January 19, 2017, you can enter the memory of your best friend’s wedding. The brouhaha is dying down, but the happiness whispers long into the night.

For the love of all that is good and human—how else can you describe September, October, November, and December except as the Autumn of Our Discontent? Aside from a stray creative video or meme here and there, the frenetic onslaught of your newsfeed was filled only with politics — names a bit too dirty and exhausted to mention. A wave was rising in the distance, and it was threatening to be historic, one way or another. The United States would either see its first female president (the mere principle of which repeatedly brought you to tears) or usher in a paralyzing era of a narcissistic demagogue. Well, guess who won the race? Tomorrow the ogre will sit on his throne and eat the past 50 years for breakfast, washing it down a glass of every marginalized citizen he offended throughout his campaign.

Which brings you to the last few memories of your twenty-seventh year on Earth. In 2016 you wrote a eulogy, you wrote a song, you gave your heart away for good. These things are meaningful and you need to remember them. These things don’t belong in a trash can fire—they belong in the museum of your life, even if you are the only one paying admission. Today there are simply more lines in the skin of your hands. Some of them lead nowhere. Some of them lead forward.

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