The Meaning of Life by J L Higgs

Friday, August 11, 2017
J L Higgs explores the meaning of life through the lens of birthday wishes.

Today is my birthday. Eighty-four. Usually, they greet me with, "Good morning," sounding all chipper. Today they're gushing, "Happy birthday!"

I guess I'm supposed to feel today is somehow different from yesterday, special. But after eighty-four years? This morning, my scarred Baby Ben alarm clock rang at its normal time. The bare concrete walls of my room were still the same somber gray color painted throughout this building. My silver comb, hairbrush and hand mirror were still lying on the white lace doily atop the four drawer Formica dresser that holds every stitch of clothing I own. And that squeaky metal frame chair that faces my bed was vacant as it always is.

I once owned 867 pairs of shoes. I'd buy four or five pairs when stores held big discounts or sales. Even had multiple pairs in the same style, just different colors. Nothing compares to the feel of feet sliding smoothly into new shoes. Shoes always made me happy.

Whenever there was a special occasion I'd buy a new pair of shoes. Once it was over, I'd rip a 3×5 sheet of paper out of my diary, date it, write a note, then crumple it up and stick it in the toe of the left shoe. Now, I only have two pairs of shoes. And a pair of slippers. Sometimes I think about my shoes. Where'd they go? What happened to them? It's like, poof and they're gone. Notes too. Things seem to keep disappearing.

Today, the hallway to the breakfast room smelled like Pine Sol mixed with Lysol. It always smells like that. Makes my nostrils want to curl up shut. As always, the local CBS channel was yakking away in the TV room. The dial must be frozen or petrified. Hah!

In the breakfast room, I count thirteen candles on the sheet cake in front of me. There's a group of eight, a group of four, and one candle standing by itself. Must be to grow on. Hah! Someone's written "Happy Eight Four Birthday Ruth" in red script on top of the dense sugary white frosting.

They gather around me and break into the Happy Birthday song. When the song stops, I lean forward to blow out the candles.

"Don't forget to make a wish," says a skeletal bleached blond, touching my shoulder and grinning each word at me in a sing-song voice.

I almost snap. I know how this works. I'm not deaf or stupid. Then I recognize her. She's that hussy I saw with her skirt hiked up to her navel with that orderly last week. And she thought no one saw her.

Make a wish? I blow out the candles and watch the smoke drift away.

Today I turned forty-two. My wife made me my favorite breakfast, two eggs over easy, Canadian bacon, buttered toasted whole wheat bread, and black coffee. When she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me Happy Birthday, I nearly spilled the coffee.

On the kitchen table, at the head of my plate were three envelopes. In the first was a card from my wife. The second was signed, love Shane, Hannah and Bob.

"Bob?" I said to my wife.

"Hannah insisted," she replied.

Underneath the table, Bob, hoping for a treat and having heard his name, nudged my thigh with his nose. I stroked his head and rubbed him behind the ears.

I picked up the final envelope and opened it. The card was from Jess, our 17-year-old.

"A separate card?"

My wife shrugged. "Jess wanted her own."

Work was the usual, flurries of emails, staid meetings, phone call interruptus, and composing a presentation my boss wanted and would completely redo.

In the afternoon, I noticed all twenty of my staff grouped together, talking. They meandered toward my office, the majority of them hanging back just outside my door. Mary Ellen, their unofficial leader, entered and sat a card in front of me.

"They're having something downstairs for Grace in Marketing. She's retiring," she said.

"Give her my best," I said as I signed the card. I handed it back and watched as they trotted off to Grace's party.

It being my birthday, I'd planned to leave work on time for once, but as I was packing up my boss came by. He started talking about the presentation. His excruciating monolog extended on for about an hour. I sat there. I have a house, a wife, three kids, and a dog. Finally, after pummeling me with every single change, he turned on his heels and headed back to his office to "fix things."

Family dinners at our house are a rarity, but they'd waited until I got home to eat. Usually, Jess has gone to some "friend's house" to do homework. The twins, Shane and Hannah, are each off doing their own thing. For Hannah, that's usually soccer practice, her mother taxiing her back and forth. And Shane? Well, Shane is wherever Shane disappears to. Ever since he and Hannah turned fourteen, he's become secretive. Doesn't say much of anything to his mother or me.

For dinner, Jess had prepared spaghetti with meat sauce. Also, a Caesar salad. When Jess brought out the chocolate layer cake from our supermarket's bakery department, I noticed I'd gotten a few specks of tomato sauce on my white shirt. As Jess lit the tips of the wicks sticking out of the four and two, my wife blinded me with camera flashes and they sang Happy Birthday.

"Make a wish," they yelled in unison.

I paused and looked at each of them. I wish I was Grace. Then I blew out the candles.

We're having a party today! I'm eight years old! Grandma and Grandpa arrived first. Then Uncle Eddie, Aunt Cecilia and Darren. He's two years older than me and a big jerk.

Mom said I had to invite all the kids from my class to my party. So I did. Even Kimmie. I wanted pony rides and a magician/clown. I got them! My party is way cooler than Matthew's was. He only had face painting.

We've got like a zillion balloons. Dad said a party had to have balloons. They're everywhere, tied to our street mailbox, hanging off the blue Happy Birthday sign above the cake table, and all over the backyard. When Freddy and Davy got here and saw the balloons they started hitting them at each other. Then they began stomping on them, making them pop real loud. My dad and a few of the other dads made them stop.

I've got lots of presents. They're at the end of the cake table. Some are huge! Grandma and Grandpa got me a really big one. I wanted to open my presents and see what I got, but mom said I have to wait. That's not fair. It's my birthday.

They were supposed to have sung happy birthday to me by now, but Melissa was running - "No running," say the moms and dads - and she tripped and fell. She started crying and her elbow started swelling. So Davy's mom, who's a nurse, filled a plastic bag with ice and held it on Melissa's arm. The other moms think Melissa's arm might be broken and she should go to the hospital for x-rays. Dad told Brian's dad, he was glad it hadn't happened on the pony ride.

Finally, mom says we're going to have cake. Yay! Yippee! I could eat it all myself. Cake and ice cream. Yum. Yum. Yum. As mom lights my candles, some of the parents pull out regular cameras and video cameras. They all sing Happy Birthday. Mom tells me to take a deep breath and I do until my cheeks puff out. Dad tells me to hold on a sec. He fiddles with the video camera. When he says, "OK. Go ahead, but don't forget to make a wish," I blow as hard as I can. All the candles go out and everyone claps. This is the best birthday ever. I can't wait until I turn nine.


  1. Well-drawn vignettes leaving spaces in which to write other stories - Ruth's adolescent journey and her meeting with her wife? Thanks,

  2. how the importance or otherwise of birthday celebrations changes as we age. the second I think is the most poignant.
    Mike McC

  3. Our expectations diminish as our age increases. Such a well done piece, with the three stories sharing the "don't forget to make a wish" imperative. I love it. Thank you.

  4. A nicely drawn portrait of a life from optimistic childhood, to disillusioned middle age, and finally bitterness in the later years. I imagine we all hope "that's not me."

  5. A skillful appraisal of the way in which our lives are dominated by numbers; 84, '867 pairs of shoes...four or five pairs' - reduced to two, thirteen candles made up of 8, 4, and 1. 42 years old, a 17 year old, 8 years old, 'a zillion balloons'...and all presented within the format of the 3 ages of Man - reversed. A superbly constructed and delivered piece, and so depressing I almost fell into the trap of failing to comment!
    B r o o k e

  6. So much for "golden age" crap. Old age is a mix of lowered expectations and ability.

    Titanium age wouldn't be so bad.

  7. Interesting, and thought-provoking piece. Ten people could be assigned to write a story structured like this one, and there would be ten (or more) different outcomes. But for those who think that ‘Old age is a mix of lowered expectations and ability,’ or a journey from optimism to disillusionment—it’s not that way for all older people.