He laughs with undisguised delight as Grandpa and I sing a raucous, out-of tune
version of “ Happy Birthday” over the phone. It’s early, only 7:30 am, but today, all day, we celebrate. It is Zach’s fifteenth birthday and determined to trap normalcy, we work hard at restoring clouds for dreaming and wings for flying to a child dimmed with disease. Our wishes float in the apple-blossomed air.
Late afternoon brings aunts and uncles laden with gifts to Zachary’s party. He sits in his wheelchair, memory pillow tucked in behind him reacting to his body temperature, shaping itself to his back, giving support while softening the pain of broken vertebrae. Though he is connected to an IV, receiving an infusion of platelets, he is more interested in the brightly wrapped packages coming in the door, a smile of excitement as he notes the small size and possibility of new electronically hand-held games.
We lounge summer-casual in the living room. Signs of festivity, cheese and crackers, beer and merlot, greet us on the coffee table. Chile bubbles in the crock-pot. Though we seem relaxed behind the easy chatter, we choose our subjects carefully, alert to nuance should we stray into something we don’t know how to handle.
We talk easily about Zach’s upcoming surgery but do not mention thyroid cancer. We retell “ Sam stories” but do not talk about his death two years ago at age seven from the same disease that is stalking the boy in front of us. We discuss future events, argue politics, conjecture about odd behaviors of family members. The aunts and uncles tell the old stories of how they outfoxed Gramma and Grandpa, and we recount the funny things they did as children. We try, in our own way, to weave a net of protection around ourselves, though we know it is also for Zach’s Mom. The birthday ritual gives us a format to follow; we are comfortable connecting the dots.
On the fireplace stands a huge self-portrait in pastels that Zach finished during his last hospital stay. These are “routine” admissions, one week out of every month to curtail as long as possible the mitochondrial disease that moves relentlessly through his heart, lungs, kidneys, bone marrow.
I look back and forth from the boy to the image, amazed at Zach’s ability. He does not disguise the truth, draws his teenaged self with unflinching directness, his face, in the picture bloated from congestive heart failure. He wears a green checked shirt. He has done something, though, with his hazel eyes that I cannot quite put my finger on. They are his eyes, but he has outlined them in black and that artistic touch has changed the resemblance for me. He has colored his eyebrows realistically, thick and black, low on his forehead, but has shaded the skin right under his eyes the same sandy brown as his hair. As I study this self-portrait, the eyes seem to float toward me like disembodied spherical shapes. When we move into the kitchen for dinner, the eyes haunt me. As much for their likeness as for their strange intensity.
At the table, I watch my grandson for clues, study him as if he was some exotic bird, and I wonder if he’s trying to make us look at him differently by shading his eyes dramatically. What is it that he wants us to see? This is the boy who said after Sam’s death, “ Just because we can’t see him, doesn’t mean he isn’t here,” who continued to play Yugio with Sam after he died, dealing first his cards, then his brother’s. Here at the table, Zach’s eyes do not look frightened, or foreign, but like any other eyes celebrating a birthday.
He lowers them now and puts his face into the steam from the chili. Though he cannot eat the chili itself, he can drink the broth and his mother has made it to order—extra hot. I wonder if he misses food, but he seems more interested in the exclamations going around from the spicy food. “Oh Zach, how could you?” He grins triumphantly. “My throat is on fire” says Aunt Maribeth. He laughs as Grandpa opens his mouth with the breath of a smoking dragon, and then as if to “show us,” Zachary downs the broth, pungent with jalapeno and red pepper. Finished, he looks around the table as if to ask, “ How hot can we take it?”
When the birthday cake arrives, Zachary is all eyes, fifteen tiny flames of celebratory light. Does he know he is dying, I wonder, as I watch him make a wish and try to fathom what it is he wants. Will he be here next year for the birthday his mother will celebrate even if he is gone? A blaze of insight flickers with the candles as Zach blows them out.
The eyes in the portrait reflect me back to me, show me how my fear of death tends to erase the “Now” of this boy’s life. They stare at me, not the other way around—challenge me to see him the way he sees himself. My grandson’s eyes rebuke pity. He is here, fiercely alive. I ask him to pass the red pepper.
Mary Jo has two books of poetry published by Bellowing Ark Press, and a chapbook by Tiger’s Eye Press. She is presently working on a manuscript of personal essays. Widely published and recipient of many awards, Mary Jo also has six Pushcart nominations and three Best of the Net. Associate editor of Tiger’s Eye Press, she is also a founder of Grace River Poets, an outreach for women’s shelters, schools, and churches.