“A Wake-up Call from the Birthday Boy,” column for April 9, 2013


This morning I turned on my computer and squinted, half-asleep, at the date: April 8.

Seriously? How did that happen? I’d have sworn it was still March. And why did the date sound so familiar? Too late for Easter. Too soon for taxes. Then it dawned on me.

Today was my brother’s birthday.

How could I forget? It was written on the calendar, carved on my brain. I memorized it long ago, before I knew my own. It had crossed my mind several times lately. But somehow I’d forgotten to mail his card.

Birthdays aren’t a big deal to everybody. But to my brother, they’re the biggest deal of all. Bigger than Christmas. Bigger than the Fourth of July. Bigger than an all-you-can-eat-Sunday-night-church-potluck supper.

Joe never forgets a birthday. Not just his own, but mine and yours and every other living soul’s on the planet. He loves to call to wake people up and sing “Happy Birthday” off-key.

If you’ve never gotten a call from him, don’t feel bad. He didn’t forget your birthday. Not a chance. He just didn’t have your number. If he did, you’d get a wake-up call every year.

I was 4 years old when he was born. He was the doll I didn’t get for Christmas. When he locked his spidery fingers around my thumb, I knew I could kill to protect him. He was 6 months old, crawling like a box turtle, the day my mother told me he was blind.

“He can’t be blind,” I said. “He always laughs at my face.”

“No,” she said. “He laughs at the sound of your voice. He will never see your face.”

That was a long time ago, a lot of birthdays. But he still laughs at the sound of my voice. He finds it especially funny when I call him long-distance to sing “Happy Birthday” off-key and close with a special sentiment: “You still look like a monkey and smell like one, too.”

“Hey, Sister!” he chuckles. “Thanks for remembering!”

I confessed my failure to mail his card and he forgave me.

“That’s all right,” he said. “I’ll appreciate it when it gets here. Like Tommie Jean always said, ‘It’s the thought that counts.’ ”

Tommie Jean was his wife. She, too, was blind. They met at a class reunion and, three weeks later, they were married. As Joe likes to say, “Even a blind man can fall in love at first sight.”

They had 10 good years together before he lost her to cancer. That was eight years ago. He still misses her every day, especially on his birthday.

Usually, for his birthday, he goes out to eat with our sister, who lives nearby. Unlike some people, she never forgets him.

But he felt a bit under the weather with a cold, he said, so he’d stay in tonight. If he feels better tomorrow, he hopes to go on a bus trip with a group from his housing complex to visit a botanical garden.

“I’ve never been to one,” he said, “and I’d love to see it.”

I told him I’m coming to visit him soon and we will celebrate his birthday together.

“I can hardly wait,” he said.

“Any words of wisdom to offer on your birthday?” I said.

He had to think for a minute. Then he spoke with conviction.

“If I could tell people anything, I’d say, ‘Be thankful for what you’ve got. You don’t have to look far to see somebody who’s got it worse than you. I see them all the time. I try to remember to be thankful. It helps.’ ”

“I am thankful for you,” I said.

“Really? Even though I’m mean and mischievous?”

“Really,” I said. “Even though you look like a monkey and smell like one, too.”

He laughed at that, a big easy laugh, the kind that comes from a sense of plenty, not want.

As I hung up the phone and walked outside to drop his card in the mail, I could hear it still — the birthday boy’s laughter — echoing off the walls of my heart.


  1. My new grandson arrived on your brother’s birthday. April 8 is a great day. And the two-year-old keeps photobombing the new-baby photos–funny how he’s got the camera focusing on his face suddenly there in the frame, fuzzing out his brother behind him. ME, Daddy, take a picture of ME!

    And so the teasings and the love begin.

  2. Wow! You made me cry again. I won’t hold that against you.
    Our baby boy turned 27 on April 8. Although he isn’t blind, he, so far, has not ‘seen’ a clear path for his life. He has returned to college and we hope that he will see his way through to the finish!
    My own brother is ten years my junior. Like you, the minute I saw him I knew that I would kill for him. Also, like your brother , he lost his wife to cancer. He was only 30 when she died. Today he is in a committed relationship with a wonderful woman whom he calls his, ‘spousal equivalent’. He is a funny guy! That wonderful gal is taking him on a two-week trek across Europe for his 50th birthday. She loves him to pieces ! They are going to visit WWII battle sites and plan to be on the beach at Normandy for the 64th anniversary of the D-day invasion . True love!
    His message as well as yours is that no one should ever give-up . One may not actively look for love, but if your heart is open; love will find a way to enter it!

  3. Joe, can see a lot better than most people that have their sight. It does help to be “thankful”! Like him, I choose to see the good – even in the bad circumstances of life. Your brother is a smart man. You tell him for me, next time he calls. 🙂

  4. You’re lucky to have such a great brother. After my mother died four years ago, both my brothers (one older, one younger) stopped speaking to me. I’ll probably never know why. It’s a hurt that never quite goes away.

  5. Weldon Walker says

    I loved your column today. I always love it when you write about your brother. I somehow feel I know him. Thanks

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