Happy Birthday . . . and other anniversaries which are now beside the point . . .

It’s almost my birthday.

Some dear loved ones have made thoughtful plans for me. But birthdays, like holidays, are on the list of things I’ve had to re-examine.

Once upon a time, in my youth, birthdays were celebrated with dinners and piles of gifts and my favorite kind of cake as orchestrated by my dear aunt, Sissie. Even in later years, those times when I was not able to see her because I was busy trying to make a life in other places or other ways that resulted in distance and absence, there would be a card with money tucked into it, and the magazine subscriptions; Interview, Vanity Fair, and New York.


Then, one year, living in an elder residence and having lost not just her sight, but her track of where and when and, even sometimes, who, my birthday came and went without a card from Sissie. In eleven months, she died.

I have never been the same.

Sissie died nine years ago and every year on her birthday, December 17, and her death day, March 12, I would travel to Libertytown, where her ashes were interred near my grandparents and father, and I would sit, visit, and sing.

Yes. Sing. Embarrassing story. I have never been a fan of Mandy Patinkin. His performances strike me as scenery-chewing, over expectorating exercises in neurotic neediness. So, it came as some surprise when once, on the phone with my aunt, she started referring to her favorite of all my performances. In “Sweeney Todd.” This pleased me. I liked (okay, LOVED) my Sweeney. I had a great director, great Mrs. Lovett, and it was my favorite role. As Sissie started to describe the moment she had in mind however, it went something like this;

“You were up on that cliff, looking down into a canyon, remember? And you sang that ‘Nothing’s Gonna Harm You’ so sweetly, just on the precipice, just weeping and the audience – we didn’t know if you were going to plummet to your death or spread your wings and fly away like the angel you were meant to be.”

What? There was no cliff in the set of my “Sweeney” and Mr. Todd didn’t sing that song. No, you see, her favorite performance of mine was – in fact – a guest appearance Mandy Patinkin had made on the television show, “Touched By An Angel.”

Life lesson, that. The sweetest, kindest thing she remembered about me was not me, it was Mandy Patinkin. And so, each year, since she died, on December 17 and March 12 I go to her marker and sing “Not While I’m Around.”


I don’t, however, spit. I do, needless to say, weep.

Until this year.

It has not been a particularly good year for me. After years of having looked at the shit life has tossed my way and trying to practice a sort of cosmic-I-ching divination to determine “what it all means” – I have finally reached a level of almost complete disinterest.

I don’t care what it means, or, rather, I don’t – now – think it actually means anything at all. I pretend to. Some days. I am adept at radiating what appears to be weary but rapt attention, as in, “been there, done that, wrote the self-help book about it.” It is often mistaken for wisdom.

What it is, is ennui. I am almost completely disconnected. So disconnected, in fact, that I did not realize until March 29 that I had missed my March 12 visit to Sissie’s ashes.

It is almost my birthday. Some dear loved ones have made thoughtful plans for me. But, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, my birthday is now about who’s not there, and what I haven’t done, and who and how I’ve failed, and when March 12 came and went without me remembering the day, I am afraid that the last little piece of my soul – that tiny portion I had hidden away, there to regenerate should I ever again find faith in something – should I ever again come to believe there was a point to any of it – to anything; when March 12 came and went, it died.

I miss you Sissie, and I wish I believed that one day, somehow, we would be at Schrafft’s again, or finally, the Algonquin together, or – hell – I’d even settle for watching Mandy Patinkin together. You see, my dearest, the thing is, without you, I just can’t seem to believe I will ever find a way to spread my wings and be the angel you believed me to be; all I see – all I can manage to believe in, now, is the plummet.


8 thoughts on “Happy Birthday . . . and other anniversaries which are now beside the point . . .

  1. I always thought that woman (particularly in the right hand photo which you had hung in the old studio) was your mother, but now I believe I am wrong. This was Aunt Sissie?

    • Yes, it was Sissie. My mother is a wonderful woman, but with six of us to raise and support and no help, she didn’t have a lot of time nor the financial ability to do the special things. My father died when I was one year and five months old, and Sissie (his sister) could never, did never really accept it nor process it – in many ways she transferred all of her devotion to him, to me, and so I was loved absolutely – funny, just coming clear now all these years later – she saw me in him, and was determined that having failed to “save” him from his demons and his sorrow, she would never, ever let me suffer. I wish everyone had in their life someone like she was to and for me – seeing only ever the absolute light in me, the best in me, the angel in me. I’ve tried to be that – have that vision for others – but, again, fallen short. I miss her every day and for some reason, the past week or so, I am almost throbbing with it.

  2. My dear Charlie, It has been a weepy day for me. This essay — this gorgeous ache of memory and longing — added to that. And I thank you. Much of the time I go through my days with an inarticulate yet thrumming grief. Like a perfect song or poem, your writings sometimes put words to the emotion and free it to be, in all its inglorious wildness. This is a gift. That said, I feel the throb of your grief eloquently. You were indeed well blessed to have Sissy in your life, and she was blessed by you. (The more I read, the more confident I am of that truth.) She misses another birthday, and no celebration, especially of your life, can be complete without her there. How I would have enjoyed meeting her and perhaps going on a show outing with the two of you! Or to have watched her watch you perform! Your Mandy Patinkin story is quite poignant, but I don’t think means she ever compared you to him. (Heaven forfend!) I know how the mind can play tricks and have to struggle to put things together when one is so sick, so near the end. With all his medical treatments, this was the hardest pill for my Mark to swallow, as he was such a brilliant man with such an agile mind. He counted on his brain every day of his life, as he told me through his tears a few weeks before he died, and he didn’t know how to be if he couldn’t count on that. It broke my heart. Aunt Sissy saw a show on tv and her mind played a trick, substituting the memory of the unfortunate Mandy P for that of her beloved Charlie. What comfort it must have given her to see you as that angel with the ability to fly, singing that lovely song. “Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around.” I have been warmed by that song so many times, and I’m sure the feelings the song brought her were ones she associated with you. Not because she expected you to be where you were not, or to fly. But because you were with her; she knew your abilities to do the improbable and soar (even when, perhaps especially when, you yourself could not see it); she heard and loved your voice singing to her what she most needed to hear, and when she needed to hear it. A trick of a mind in a suffering body, yes, but also the magic that can happen when memory sees only through love, and sees to the heart of the beloved and the relationship. An angel is literally a messenger. Unlike the mistaken and misbegotten popular views of angels, they are neither saccharine, cute, nor cuddly. They are fierce, bold, and persistent. They fight as needed (a few of them more than that) and they get the message through. Clearly you were this to Sissy. No matter what images became confused, she saw you, and she heard the message you were singing. And she loved it all. As you are. You do soar, not for any successes or accomplishments you achieve, but because she saw that in you, through her love for you. Mandy Pantinkin is incidental (God knows). She saw her beautiful boy soar. She heard your voice telling her that nothing would harm her, and she believed you. Cherish that, please. On her birthday, and death day, and your birthday. And every day. Hear her voice. Her love is still with you. Because of that, you already soar. Day by day. I did not intend to write so much, and cannot bear to reread it, so forgive any editing needs. My heart was full and I wanted to share with you, and you so often share with me and others. Thank you. I treasure you. And your Sissy. love, A

    On Tue, Apr 9, 2013 at 3:13 PM, herewearegoing

  3. By the way, I am around this weekend, and Monday, if you want company, an outing, an escape place. Whatever. No obligation, but I am always happy to see you. Whatever you prefer.

  4. I really loved that. It made me think of my Aunt Jean, who passed a few days prior to my wedding. I really appreciate you sharing this. Thanks Charlie. Be well.

  5. Pingback: Happy Un-Birthday to Me | Gene's Musings

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