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Birthdays mark the years, but life is really about what happens in-between

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He was born on a crisp late January day in the middle of an episode of “Guiding Light.” Though I haven’t watched a daytime soap in years, on that day, Josh and Reva’s love story consumed me so that in the middle of labor, I grabbed the nurses and screamed at them to find me a TV, and now!

But Graham interrupted.

He always has done this, forced my attention away from the trivial and toward what is not, doing his part to help his scatterbrained mother to look up. His 32nd birthday was this week, and I’ve spent time searching for moments like this to remind myself that the boy he was is somehow bundled up into the man he has become.

Watching grandson Henry crawl around the house over the holidays reminded me of this fact. I kept thinking: You have forgotten what this was like, marveling at him shaking wrapping paper into the air. It feels important to mine my memory to find a few of the thousands of daily moments like this that built Graham.

What happened to everything in-between from that Thursday afternoon in January to this one?

So I head into my mind’s memories with a pick-axe.

I see a toddler, his head sticking out from inside the kitchen cabinet. Then a boy and a bin of Legos, some spilling onto the floor while others rise into towers all around him. Then he’s climbing the pantry shelves to the top to grab a snack. That same boy grew like Jack’s beanstalk to be the man we call when we need a platter from the top shelf or to hook up the smart TV the kids gave us for Christmas.

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The author, Susan Byrum Rountree, with her son, Graham, when he was younger. On his 32nd birthday, she reflected on significant moments from their relationship. Courtesy of Susan Byrum Rountree

When he was little, every birthday included a book or two about how things work. Weather and Buildings and Time and Flight — he studied them, committing the pages, the ideas to his mind.

That tower of Legos? As he grew, he started small, building tables and simple chests, but this year he transformed an empty wall into custom bookshelves, quietly building them for his wife for Christmas.

Graham came of age alongside Harry Potter, and sometimes it feels like he’s a bit of a wizard, too. He read the first book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” before it came out in America, thanks to my bookseller friend, Linda, who had the British version on her shelf. (It was released in the U.S. as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”)

When Graham was 16 and had his provisional license (no driving after 9 p.m.), “Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix” came out, and we let him drive to that same bookstore at midnight. Linda let him in the back door so he wouldn’t have to stand in line with the small Harrys and Rons and Hermiones. We were essentially allowing him to break the law, and I bit my nails until he walked through the kitchen door, thick book in hand.

The G-Man, as we call him, is wise in his wizardry. Once, he secretly sorted through an attic box filled with my nativity scene set and gave me pieces I was missing. And when painters covered the wooden trim in my kitchen by mistake, he came over with his trusty putty knife, gently peeling the paint away to reveal a lifetime of height history for himself, my dad and my nephews. And because he pays close attention, he found my precious charm bracelet I thought was long lost, because he had remembered finding a odd box in the linen closet.

These are small things, surely, but with these in-between moments, Graham is whittling away at changing his corner. And I feel blessed to share a small piece of it.

It’s February, and when the second month comes around the corner, it stops me short. Every year in these early days I revisit a life-changing time in our family. Graham had just turned 26 when my father came down with pneumonia, and on a snowy day a few weeks later, my son took my hand as we walked down the hospital hallway toward the ICU to see the man my boy is most like. His grip was solid and fragile at once, just like my own.

And as we walked toward that room — and a future neither of us could fathom — I hope he felt a small bit of comfort, that for that moment and so many others, he was in my corner with me.

Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of “In Mother Words,” an essay collection, and she’s grateful that the in-between story of her life when her children were young is recorded there. She can be reached at susanbrountree@gmail.com.
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