The 27th remains a reasonably significant day of the month for my family. In April, the date marks my birthday, in November, my Dad’s, and in May, my Dad’s Dad: Grandpa, or ‘Pa’ as he was known.
Today, Pa would have been ninety nine years old.
After me, my younger brother’s due date as a baby was also the 27th, of January, however he stayed in for some extra days of peace and quiet, emerging on 1st February.
Not content with being born on what had become a special date, the story goes that I began life immediately setting my parents’ nerves on end, the umbilical cord attaching itself, python-like, around my neck during delivery. No sooner had I gulped my first mouthfuls of hospital air, than I was rushed to an emergency ward for “checks”.
It is likely that no first born arrives without causing some degree of anxiety to the border-line hysterical state in which new parents default to living their inaugural days, responsible as they are for a brand new human being.
From what I recall, almost six years ago, the key principles after Florence’s birth were to ensure her regular consumption of milk, that she slept, and that I didn’t squash her elbows too hard in the wrong direction as I wrestled on a tight-fitting top (Flo was 2 week’s late arriving, 10lbs in weight, and I think the ‘0-3 month old’ sets of clothes she’d been given by the barrel load were used only in her first week).
Just last month, friends here in Saigon, the mother a doctor, arrived home from the hospital with their bundle of joy, No. 2. “How did it go?” I asked the Dad in the lobby of our apartment building, “All fine,” came the initial reply, “although there were the usual couple of ‘interesting’ moments,” he dropped in casually. It transpired that their mid-wife, upon holding up the baby girl for the first time, instantly queried the fact that the due date was likely out by four weeks. The wee infant being, as the old term goes, a tad under-cooked.
In 2014, the next steps in such a situation are two nights in hospital and then home. In other words, not serious.
Upon hearing my neighbour’s story, I tried to work out on the spot what percentage of a full nine months of carrying a baby it is that four weeks amounts to, at the same time as wanting to question to what degree a doctor herself might have made her own calculations upfront about due dates, however in the nano second I had to pull off a suitable reply I opted instead for a half-laugh and a half make-a-serious-face, spluttering a noise rather than any actual words, and subsequently falling easily into a more comfortable exchange about the pitfalls of living in Vietnam – the Dad’s summary statement (polished now after much over use) of “apparently that happens here a lot” calling an end to our encounter, as I made a dash for it out of the elevator.
Birthdays conjure up memories, and also reinforce the two concrete things that we know will happen to us at the beginning and end of our lives.
As I don’t believe in the after-life, then the pressing certainty of death, followed by eternity, offers up an incentive (when I choose to think it through in moments when I like to imagine myself as someone far cleverer and more eloquent than I am 99% of the rest of the time) to cherish the encounters I have with others: be they encounters over which I have control (making dinner with my children) or those which stand as moments of sheer unfathomable randomness, stacked as they are as odds against which all the bookmakers in the world, together, would not be able to bet.
These ‘moments’ – and what they teach or make us or others feel – can be truly authentic. We can “be” in these moments, authentically, emotionally, and our being in them need not be dictated by our ability to earn money, nor our talent to spend it. For such transaction based things, whilst of importance, can only ever be a veneer to the real substance – the “what makes us tick?” piece – of every one of us.
My youngest, Martha, was three years old last Friday – the 23rd – her cousin, Jenson, the day before celebrating his 8th birthday. In these formative childhood years, it is the receiving of presents, the eating of cakes, and the joy felt at having your friends come to your birthday party, which subsumes the special moments that make up your very special day. I can still recall my Mum making me a Kermit the Frog birthday cake when I was a child. His ‘arms’ held up by little sticks, and a red and pink iced tongue sparking delight amongst those gathered round to blow out the candles.
Perhaps, as a non-believer, the best I can do is recall moments with my Grandpa – an ‘after-life’ as such – so that one day my daughters might pause and stare back through these words, into a world generations before them, where their Great-Grandparents enlisted in the Second World War, lived on Moss Lane, in Pinner, Middlesex, with their two curly grey and white haired dogs, their walks to the local park and pond, feeding the ducks, and where, sometimes, their Daddy and their Uncle stayed the night, watching Match of the Day or episodes of The Pink Panther cartoon, rolling around on their Grandparent’s bed in the morning, playing “shops”, and watching with curiosity as Pa sat back in his armchair, smiling, and lighting up his pipe.