"We Only Have This One Life"
a short story
T. D. Smith
"It's okay. Don't fear. You are loved, and there is so much ahead of you," you hear a soft, warm, loving feminine voice say after the rushing, fluttering sound (what is a sound?) and current pulling you forward, towards the bright, white light.
Parents, Grandparents are there. There is a picnic table and food and something sweet and delicious. It is far more delicious than the food. You learn it is called cake. You have no friends yet, so none of those are around. What's a friend, anyway?
Same as the first, but with more people your age, shape, and size. Are these friends? Lots of crying. Lots of dirty diapers. Lots of parents with dark circles beneath their eyes.
Omg, a puppy! You think you might know what a friend is now. Lots less rest for the parents.
The giant mouse is a celebrity, nay a god! And he is one you've always wanted to meet. Finally, he comes down from his stoop-stage heaven to bestow you with his birthday blessings. He is before you now. You can't move. You realize a familiar feeling has crept into your blood and overtaken you. What was it called? Ah, yes.
You are paralyzed with fear, suddenly. Why can't you move?
Finally, when the mouse is just upon you, you kick out, sending him toppling over. You run screaming to your parents, tears streaming from your eyes. They comfort you. You are no longer afraid.
The party ends early and you go home early.
Relatively good birthday! Party in back yard. There is an older, splintering picnic table. And food. And cake. Sweet, delicious, savory cake. You still don't understand why your parents tell you it's bad for you. Although, you are beginning to suspect that it is because they have a secret cake vault somewhere and want it all for themselves.
Later that night, there is a thunderstorm. You are scared and come running down the hallway, your puppy hot on your heels, screaming. You're terrified of the thunderstorm, and you're pretty sure you see a ghost in the hallway, too. (Any situation this terrifying HAS to have a ghost too, right?)
You burst into your parents' room. Your mother squirms under the covers, wiggling back into her nightgown as quickly and gracefully as humanly possible, while your dad pulls on his boxers. You curl up between them. You are not scared anymore. Your father lies awake, staring at the ceiling, brow furled.
"Damn it!" thinks your dad. "Tonight was THAT night, and now there's a kid and a puppy between us!"
Woo-hoo! Video games! Woo-hoo! Toys! Woo-hoo, candy, cake, and sugar!
Your puppy, now more a dog, runs around, weaving between your peers, searching for any dropped crumb he can get.
You and your peers run around, shouting, hooing, hollering.
You all run around the yard some more. Then you finally come in and pass out.
"Whew!" The parents quietly rejoice, uncorking the bottle slowly, lest the popping sound wake the kids, and finally get their own slices of cake and eat them, too!
The kids wake up a few minutes later. They are up all night.
Puppy now a full grown dog. Looks at you fondly. You think of him when you are at school. He is there waiting for you, on your birthday, when you get off the bus that afternoon. He looks at you with a dumb stare, full of unconditional love. You could never do any wrong. Definitely starting to understand this friendship thing.
Everything sucks. It doesn't, but it also does. You are sad all the time. For no reason. That sucks. But people who try to make it better suck. Adults are stupid. Everything makes you sad, but you don't want anyone to know. You don't give a shit about birthdays anymore and are so embarrassed your mother threw you a party anyway. (Secretly you're super stoked and really enjoyed and appreciated it.) Outwardly, you hate everyone.
Dog died this year. And you thought your 13th birthday sucked! You're still sad he's not running amongst your friends searching for crumbs. Your throw darts and horseshoes. The adolescent fog is beginning to thin, and you think about what you want in life, the really important things to you, the ones that can't be wrapped in paper and bows. It occurs to you how much you learned from your beloved dog and how much he loved you to the bitter end, and you are both sad and happy at the same time. You think you really do understand that whole friendship thing now. Then the part of you that is still a teenager harrumphs. Whatever! You stop thinking about all that stuff.
That one girl shows up last to the party. You've been waiting all day, holding out for her to come, and now she finally arrives. You stare at each other from across the yard. All the people seem to fade away, and there is nothing but you two, the old, dilapidated picnic table, and the sun. You run to each other and embrace. Then you steal away to temporarily ditch the party and finally have your first kiss.
Her boyfriend shows up. You fight him.
You awaken several hours later in the ER to see the girl, your mom, and dad standing by you holding a plate with a slice of cake on it. The candle is drooping in the melting icing, but still there, holding out strong. The doctors and nurses take pity on you and allow your parents to light the candle in the hospital ward.
You're a big man now! You can do so many things! You buy and light a cigar, because you can! You then take a puff, cough, extinguish it, and throw it away (because you can, you insist to yourself).
You go vote because you can!
You keep your contraband cellphone on and in your pocket at altar boy camp, popping it out now and then to text a friend because you can, much to the admiration of some altar boys, and scandalization of others. The priests don't seem to notice or care, even the one who stares right at you when you whip out the phone to take a call from your girlfriend once. It gets you wondering.
Later that week, you buy a pornographic magazine from the convenience store, because you can!
You don't read it or look at any of the pictures. You give it to your friend, Dave, a connoisseur of such things. You only bought it because you could.
You pay taxes because you have to.
Why do we have birthdays every year? Some of them are so unremarkable. Why can't we just celebrate the ones that are major milestones in our society?
Anyway, college is not going the way you had hoped. As you blow out the nineteen candles, you see nineteen different mistakes, missed opportunities, and sins you could have done differently.
Your parents and grandparents are there.
Later that summer, you make the move to transfer schools.
New school, new friends! Lots of brown semi-scenes in your memory, all of them sideways and fuzzy. No more details to recall that night.
Next morning your head hurts. You regret revelries that gradually come back to you. Things you said and did.
Did we throw George into a river last night? Lots of vomit throughout the day. You call George a couple hours later. He's alright and it was all in good fun.
Then you remember your girlfriend of so many years staying with you, driving you home, consoling you as you puked, tucking you in.
You call her.
It's okay and she loves you.
Okay, now you know all about that friendship thing.
You graduate college. Your parents, grandparents, and girlfriend are there and are very proud.
Second dog died recently, suddenly, tragically. Still sad.
Girlfriend is there. She gives you a metal-banded watch with a dog silhouette behind the watch's arms. You feel like a proper adult wearing it, and yet feel a warm sentimentality when you wear it, too. You can't tell if it's for your girlfriend, the dog, or both. You look at your girlfriend in a different light you haven't seen her in before. The strings of your heart pluck a new chord, and the gears in your brain turn. The scheming begins.
You rent a car in your new hometown far away from your old one and drive to your parent's house with your girlfriend to visit parents on your birthday. This is weird, renting a car! Longtime girlfriend holds your hand as you cross the threshold into your parents' house.
In a surprise twist, under a night sky illuminated by flashes of fireworks, you give a gift on your birthday for once. Your girlfriend cries tears of joy as you stoop to one knee and open the box.
One of the best. You travel with your wife to a faraway island in the Atlantic and help children in wheelchairs learn to do simple household tasks. One of them hugs you, his thin, misshapen arms wrapping around you. You feel truly alive.
That year you feed the hungry and heal the sick. You are the person both your dogs thought you were.
Different. Weird. No dogs. No grandparents. Birthday is fun, but you miss them all.
You have been running again. A lot. Nearly back to your old glory days of track fame and esteem. You win the local town race. Your old, weathered, and gray coach shakes your hand and tells him he's proud of you. So do his adolescent children.
Friends and family gather in the back yard later, around the stack of wood that used to be your parents' picnic table. There's a pinata. Your wife hands you a stick. You're surprised, because the stick is much smaller than you expected.
You look at it.
You are confused, then petrified, then elated.
You look at your wife, wide eyed, and smiling. Tears stream down both your faces.
Your wife hands you a present. Your infant child is there. You reflect that it's no longer yourself upon which birthdays are focused, but on your child. As it should be.
You purchase some wood from the hardware store and, incorporating some of that same, old, splintered wood, begin building a new picnic table so your children can enjoy it on their birthdays.
You get a prostate exam. Woot.
Exponentially fewer presents than 10th birthday, but you are okay with that. Your parents are there, frailer and grayer. Everyone is gathered around the new picnic table.
Later on that night, you and your wife watch that new scary movie you have been holding off seeing until you get a night away from the kids.
You think your daughter is in bed, until at the scariest part of the movie, right as the plot resolves, she screams. You turn around to see she has snuck down the steps and has been watching over you and your wife's shoulders. You pick her up and put her butt back in bed.
Later that night, your child comes running and screaming down the hallway and bursts into your room.
She is sure she saw the scary ghost from the movie in the hallway.
You are sure your boxers were just at the foot of the bed as you scramble to clothe yourself and your wife does the same, reaching for her pajama top.
"Damn it!" You think to yourself later that night as you lie there looking at the ceiling "tonight was THAT night, and now there's a child, a puppy, a kitten, AND a lizard between us!"
Quite similar to 40th, only now things are much blurrier. Not for the same reason as your 21st.
Kids' dog died recently. They are still not over it. You take them on a hike and while looking out over a beautiful view of the mountains, offer them consoling words of wisdom. They remember that forever.
Kids all grown up now, come into town with boyfriends, girlfriends, kids-in-law. It's very special having the whole family in one place again. You feel proud.
Your first grandchild is there, gives you a gift. A tear streaks your eye.
Your parents are not there.
Grand kids each wrote heartfelt cards and gave you thoughtful gifts. Your heart is full. Both your parents and grandparents are not there, although it feels like they are somehow, if invisibly.
You buy some varnish and wood from the hardware store and begin repairing and preserving that old picnic table.
Retired, happily. Traveling with wife across the world. You call and stop by at one of kid's houses for your birthday . Kids and grand kids surprise you, jumping out and yelling their greeting with cheer.
One grand kid adamantly explains the difference between two video games you've never heard of and don't understand. You pretend to understand anyway, and to be interested. You just love watching her talk and to see how she's grown.
Later you and your wife dance slow in candle light in the dining room when your old song comes on over the internet radio stream. You pull her close. You both smile.
Your grand child's dog just died and she is distressed. She comes to see you on your birthday and tells you she wanted to see you and make you happy today because it is your day, even though she herself is not happy.
You smile, joy overflowing in your heart, touched. You sit her on your knee and you tell her that today might be your day, but she is your world. She smiles a sweet smile.
You speak sweet words of comfort and consolation. Man, have you got this friendship thing nailed, now!
Your kids and grand kids come to visit you. Your little lap dog died last week and you are sad. They give you cards. A certain grand child hugs you and whispers familiar, consoling words of wisdom in your ear. You cry. Your wife reaches out and squeezes your shoulder.
Nothing is the same without your wife. You swear color, or at least certain bands of the visible spectrum, as well as flavors of foods you used to love, left this realm along with her. Everything is just kind of bland.
Your kids and grand kids come to visit you and you enjoy their company, yet everything is lackluster compared to years past. You tell your mother, father, and grandparents so openly and don't care who overhears you.
How did you make it this long without her? You still don't understand how someone so strong in so many ways could have gotten so sick so quickly and withered away. You would have been fine with slumping over on top of her, dying within minutes of each other, like Romeo and Juliet, or going soon after like so many other couple's you've heard of. But yet here you remain. Perhaps you are stronger than you ever gave yourself credit. Perhaps that's one reason she loved you. Why so many love you.
Your great grandchild's dog recently passed and he is distraught.
But you are happy, because you happened to be there when it happened, your grand daughter having brought you out to visit that day. You were there when the old shell of the dog seemed to crack open and the young puppy inside came out. And you saw the two beautiful men wearing white robes giving the brightly shining puppy a pet and then a bone, and then carry it ever upwards into the crisp, cloudless, blue sky, their wings flapping gracefully as they went. You are hopeful at what this sight means. You console your great grandson, telling him nothing, no one, is ever gone for good.
Everyone comes to visit you in the home. You are oddly happy and proud and sad all at the same time. Maybe that's because you're so old your synapses no longer fire properly, and your tired mind confuses one emotion for another. Or maybe it's because you've lived so long, experienced so much, that you've accomplished everything this realm has to offer, and this feeling, you've realized, is what you feel when you have reached the pinnacle, the feeling that accompanies wise old sages who have mastered this world, experiencing it's highest hopes and happiness, it's lowest devastation and gloom, embracing it, along with all it's revelries and disasters.
All kinds of people are there to celebrate you. Friends, family, people you have helped over the years. The poor, downtrodden, marginalized who you used your knowledge and resources to help. You never told anyone or publicized this. Many of them are there now, praising you. Some of your family members are surprised. The children and grandchildren you are closest to are not. You smile.
You look over and see your parents and grandparents there among everyone, standing there clear as day. You are very happy to see them. Someone else steps out from among their fold.
The nice, beautiful woman has a soft, soothing feminine voice, fair skin, and wears long, blue and white robes. She asks if you are ready to come with her. You ask what about your family, won't they miss you, won't they be sad?
She says yes they will, very much so, but they will be okay because of the way you lived and loved and impacted them so profoundly. You smile and agree to go with her.
You walk with her, ever upward. Her face shines as if encompassed by a circle of golden light. She is nice and lovely and reminds you of your wife. Your mother. No, your grandmother. All of those people.
As you rise, you begin to hear singing. You see bright, white light and head towards it. You hear what you can only figure is puppies yipping as you get nearer and nearer that white light, which excites you, drawing you ever nearer. You hear and feel an oddly familiar rushing and fluttering sound you recognize vaguely from somewhere once, long ago, but you cannot place it. You finally realize it is the flapping of the woman's wings, which you have not noticed she had until now.
You realize then that you are feeling something, a familiar feeling you know well, and felt so many times during your life: fear.
You are small now, much smaller than you thought, and the beautiful, nice, shining woman is holding you, cradling your very essence in her arms. She is singing to you and coos at you. Then she speaks to you in a golden tone that you hear not with your ears, but your soul.
"It's okay. Don't fear. You are loved, and there is so much ahead of you."
It is very bright and warm where you are now. Squinting, you can make out the shapes of very small, infantile, kicking forms of your wife, your parents, your grandparents. Sitting by them are puppies whom you recognize as all the dogs you've loved before. You smile the most real smile you have ever smiled, spreading your arms and walking towards them.
And life all begins again.
I don't know where this came from. It just came to me and I started writing and writing it on the website until it was finished, after I had already written an entire chapter of my next novel. I hope anyone who reads it enjoys it.
Friends of T.D. Smith