A memorable/terrible birthday

The summer of 1986 was glorious, until it wasn’t.

In the first two weeks after school ended, I met the younger sister of a woman in our church. She was my age and visiting for the summer from Chicago. When you grow up a preacher’s kid in a congregation with limited teenagers in a small town, the dating pool can be small. I immediately became interested.

Her name was Donna, and when I went on vacation to Englewood on the west coast of Florida with my best friend, Dwayne, and his family, I made it a point to send Donna a post card. It wasn’t an overly grand gesture, but it helped win her affection. When Dwayne and I returned from the beach, it didn’t take long before we were double dating. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that Donna also was facing limited dating options. A summer fling was emotionally safe and would help alleviate the teenage boredom of spending her days with her sister’s family.

I had a girlfriend in the 8th grade, but we didn’t really go anywhere or do anything together. Now that I was 15 going on 16, and I was seeing someone from the church, my windows of opportunity opened up. Donna and I spent a lot of time together that summer, including a day with Dwayne and his girlfriend at the nearby theme park known at the time as Cypress Gardens. There may or may not have been several make-out sessions in the gardens. A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell. In fact, there may or may not have been many make-out sessions over the course of our courtship that summer. And although a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell, teenage romance has a way of turning on you in ways you least expect.

In July my family took a camper trailer down to the Florida Keys for a week of vacation, and Donna returned to Chicago. Parting was such sweet sorrow, but worse than the emotional distance was the physical symptoms I began to experience. On our drive down to the Keys, I began to feel sick. At first I thought it was just a summer cold – congestion, sore throat, headache, loss of appetite, lethargy. I figured it would pass in a day or two and would not hinder my enjoyment of sun, sand and surf. But even though we were at the beach, I didn’t have much energy for all the activities I usually enjoyed on vacation. My parents tried to make it a fun experience for us, but I felt worse as the week wore on. I spent most of the time in my bunk. We had to cut our stay short when a church member passed away, and I was not sad to go home early.

The change to more familiar scenery did not improve my condition. Not long after we got home, Mom took me to our family general practitioner. He prescribed antibiotics, and our expectation was I would recover in time to celebrate my 16th birthday the next week. My grandparents came down from Georgia with my dad’s sister and her family, and the house was full of people and activity. As I got sicker, my parents wisely set me up in the camper in the backyard as a good place to quarantine from the rest of the family and get some rest.

Rather than recover, my condition deteriorated. Those days in the camper are fuzzy. I remember my throat hurting so bad each time I swallowed that I got a cup to spit in instead. It was awful.

An overly skinny teenager in shorts and no shirt sits on a couch trying to unwrap presents with his younger brother and cousin looking on.
Emaciated and unable to breath, I can’t say that I enjoyed my 16th birthday. It was anything but sweet.

Struggling to breathe and swallow, I didn’t eat, and I barely drank anything. On my actual birthday, the family pulled me out of isolation long enough to open presents before Mom took me to an ear, nose and throat specialist for a second opinion. He examined me, ran some tests and immediately sent me to Winter Haven hospital. It was mononucleosis.

My tonsils were so swollen the doctor was afraid my airway would close. I distinctly remember the doctor discussing the possibility of a tracheotomy. I was so sick I couldn’t even muster the energy to be worried about what was happening. The specialist’s office wasn’t far from the hospital, and it wasn’t long before I was in a room getting intravenous doses of strong medication.

I spent the first night resting intermittently, as people do in hospitals when nurses are checking vitals and administering medications every hour or so. The swelling in my throat began to abate, and by the next morning, there was no need for any procedure to poke a hole in my neck. I was so doped up and so miserable, the fact it was my 16th birthday was completely lost on me. My parents were extremely worried. They were more concerned for my health and recovery than whether or not my 16th birthday would be special.

As awful as it was, a bout of mono and a hospital stay is what made it special. Instead of getting my driver’s license, going out with my girlfriend or even just enjoying cake and ice cream with my family, I remember being too sick to swallow, staying in a camper, being admitted to the hospital and losing a bunch of weight. Those aren’t typical birthday memories, and my 16th wasn’t very “sweet.”

A few days after I came home, we did celebrate with cake and ice cream. I don’t remember much about the celebration. There are pictures of me, looking emaciated and out of it, sitting on our couch with my grandparents, aunt and cousins gathered all around singing happy birthday. I spent the rest of the summer recuperating. I moved into the guest room downstairs when our family left, and it was weeks before I could play video games and board games with my brothers or see my friends. My plans to try out for the football team were thwarted. I had lost down to 150 pounds, and at 6-foot-4, that’s not enough meat on your bones to play football. Instead, I gradually built up my strength and stamina to return to school by late August and ran cross country in September and October to get in shape for basketball season.

In addition to ruining a rite-of-passage birthday, my bout with mono had lasting effects. When I went off to college two years later, my parents were overly concerned about me getting enough rest and eating right. I believed the strong drugs I got in the hospital bolstered my immune system, and, in fact, I didn’t get sick at all for at least four or five years.

I do not mean to suggest causation when combining the story of my summer romance with the tale of my illness. Everyone knows mono is known as the “kissing disease.” When I tell my boys about the experience now, I just wink and say I got mono the summer I turned 16 “the fun way.”

I won’t call my 16th birthday “happy,” but it was definitely memorable.

More than a day

Barron with birthday presents
Celebration Part One: Barron’s 12th birthday celebration began with cake, ice cream and presents with his grandparents in Sandersville.

It wasn’t that long ago that a birthday was just that – a day.

In the New South, however, we celebrate a person’s birthday for many, many days. I have a theory about why this is: It takes us longer to celebrate birthdays now because of geographic dispersion of family, over-stuffed schedules and the vicious cycle of birthday one-upmanship.

My oldest son, Barron, recently turned 12. Our commemoration of this blessed event began with a Saturday trip to Sandersville to celebrate with Carla’s parents. There was cake, ice cream and presents. My folks live 8-10 hours away. Although they have sacrificially made the drive to be with us on some of the milestone birthdays, we don’t see them on most birthdays.

Grandparents are an important part of birthdays for us, and we have to make the time to go to them. When we lived in Macon, it was no big deal. We might even be able to scoot over to Sandersville for an afternoon. But now that we are in the Atlanta area, it’s a bit more of a commitment and takes some scheduling. When families lived closer together, it wasn’t as much of a challenge getting everyone together for a birthday, but covering the miles takes planning. With our schedule, making a trip to see family causes the birthday season to become elongated.

Barron with birthday card mustache.
Celebration Part Two: Barron’s other grandparents from Florida sent a cool card with a mustache disguise in case all of the birthday mushyness caused him to need a disguise.

This leads me to my second point: birthday celebrations take more than a day now because of our overflowing schedules. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find time to celebrate a birthday, particularly if it happens to fall in the middle of a work/school week.

Barron’s big day occurred on a Wednesday. We acknowledged his actual birthday by opening gifts on that day, but our mid-week church activities took precedence over any celebration. The sad truth is, most of our weeks are a sprint that may have only one or two small openings at night or on a weekend afternoon. And our kids aren’t even involved in sports. That ups the ante even higher.

We ended up celebrating with Barron by going out for pizza and bowling on a Friday. It was fun, and we all enjoyed it, but it was several days removed from Barron’s actual 12th birthday. This brings me to my final point: birthday celebrations have become a season because we feel the need to make each year better than the previous year.

If we started at the first birthday with a candle, a song and a cupcake, this wouldn’t be so bad. But we make the first birthday such a production that by the time kids are old enough to actually remember their birthdays we have to rent bounce houses or invite 30 friends to the gymnastics center or go bowling or play mini-golf or ride ponies or rent a limo or go to Disney World or on and on and on.

Barron at the bowling alley.
Celebration Part Three: Barron celebrates a strike as he dominates the family, including dear old dad, in a game of bowling.

Growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the birthday destination of choice was Crystal’s Pizza Palace in Irving. As a kid the place seemed massive, and it was the only place to play such arcade game classics as Sea Hunt, Galaxian, Joust and Pacman. I didn’t feel that my parents were under pressure to deliver a bigger and better birthday experience each year. I just wanted to go to Crystal’s.

But these days, it’s a hard pressure to resist. We want desperately to give our kids memorable birthdays. To do this, we sometimes have to schedule the event in increments, like Barron’s this year. It makes for a season of birthday celebration rather than a single day.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m talking about a societal phenomenon that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not like we take enough time to appreciate our loved ones anyway, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about getting too much attention for their birthday.

I just hope we can finish celebrating Barron’s 12th birthday before his 13th rolls around.

Do your birthday celebrations extend past the actual day? How do you handle it? What was your most memorable birthday celebration? Leave a comment and extend this blog beyond a single day.

A foot in two states

Heavy clouds and the threat of rain couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for a trip on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway last Monday for Carlton’s third birthday.

Lance and Carlton on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway
Lance and Carlton inside car 549 on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

For weeks leading up to the big event, I felt pangs of sentimentality about my youngest son following the same journey as his brothers from toddlerhood to full blown boyhood. I wanted – maybe even needed – this day to be meaningful and memorable.

After a 2-hour circuitous journey from Lilburn to Highway 5 that took us through Forsyth and Cherokee counties, we arrived in the quaint town of Blue Ridge all set for our low-speed adventure.

Thanks to a school holiday there were a few families among the 515 passengers on the full train, but the clientele was mostly seniors, including a group of Lutherans who filled our car. My wife and I had agonized over the decision to purchase seats in a closed car rather than an open air car. As it turned out, we had plenty of opportunity to enjoy both.

With the airbrakes wheeshing and the whistle blowing, the Lutherans belted out a rousing rendition of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” It was value added.

The train covered the 13-mile journey to McCaysville in right at an hour. The leaves weren’t quite at their peak, but we weren’t really looking at the leaves. The boys seemed more interested in the snack bar and the on-board toilet.

I could write an entire essay on the juxtaposition of the hillside mountain homes with the ramshackle houses along the Toccoa River, but let’s just say the scenery was a mix of urban escapism and quaint nostalgia backdropped by an occasional golden- or crimson-leafed hardwood.

When we got to McCaysville, our volunteer hostess, Frances, helped us escape the train before the Lutherans, allowing us to get at the front of the line at Georgia Boy BBQ. After pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, beans and sweet tea, we poked around in the railway’s northern terminus gift shop before following the walking map to McCaysville City Park overlooking the river.

The boys worked out their restlessness, and Carlton met a friend, a boy about his age with the appropriately Southern name of Atticus. They pointed at ducks in the river, enjoyed the slide and swung on their stomachs like toddlers do.

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway engine
Thankfully, the engines don't talk or sing on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.

We headed back a few minutes before the train gave the four blasts on its whistle to signal the return trip to Blue Ridge. Carrying Carlton, I stopped at the blue dotted line in the parking lot of the IGA grocery store.  Frances had told us it was the state line, separating McCaysville, Ga., from Copper Hill, Tenn.

Deriving an odd thrill, I straddled the line, holding Carlton close.

“Hey, buddy. We’re in two states now,” I said, prompting a puzzled look from the newly-minted three-year-old.

That’s how I felt – a foot in two states. I still wanted to be a parent of a toddler, at least for a day longer, but I knew Carlton was quickly maturing into boyhood.

There would definitely be more monumental birthdays and more significant rites of passage along the way, but for me, this was the moment I had been searching for to validate my grieving the loss of Carlton’s infancy and early childhood.

The ride back was nap inducing, but Carlton sat in my lap and forcibly held my eyelids open. He didn’t want me to miss anything. Though drowsiness almost overtook me, I didn’t want to miss anything either. It all goes by too quickly, even on a slow train.

We concluded the experience with a fried apple pie at Mercier Orchards and set off back toward Atlanta. It had been a good day. The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway provided a journey I’ll cherish for a lifetime.