Photo by Clemens Breitschaft

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.

How old are you now? How old are you now? How old are you now? How old are you now?

Not answering? Cat got your tongue? Never mind. I know it’s your 80th. Or would have been.

“What do you want to do for your 80th birthday?” I asked you in early fall.

“Nothing,” you said.

You had a big party for your 70th, another one for your 75th. What do you have for your 80th? Gray frosty skies, Aussie lying on your bed, Harry the Cur, who’s never met you, lying on mine, all of us awaiting a big snow.

How we loved a big snow, you and I, the feeling of being in a shrouded world, islanded and safe, waiting for the snowplow to clear the driveway. “Till then,” you used to say happily, “there’s nothing we can do.” You were tired from all those years of doing, glad to wait things out till the snowplow arrived. Glad to watch the Patriots play on Sunday, play against time, a little like you.

And though you said you wanted nothing I’d have bought you something sweet, like the Boston Cream donut you liked. And we’d have discussed the coming storm, me remembering to fill the bathtub with water in case we lost power and bring up the battery-operated lamps. And in the recess of my mind I’d wonder what I’d do if we did lose power, along with our heat and water, that I’d have to get you and the dogs out of the house. But I wouldn’t have worried, I knew I’d take care of everything.

So why don’t I feel that way now? Why do I feel my constitution has melted into puddles? That of course I’ll take care of things, but it won’t really matter?

That’s what I’m missing in your absence, Bernie, that things matter. That we may not be important, but that things matter. Or, to turn it around, the matter of things. Not to look through a book or the black bean soup or the dogs’ toys on the floor as if they’re made of air, as if they don’t exist, but to see that they have matter, that they exist, that I exist.

A student of yours posted the photo above, from one of the times we taught in Switzerland. How different we always were. You liked to improvise everything, I liked to plan. But that photo! My goodness, that photo! We’re in good health, walking towards the meditation hall to start another segment of teaching, doing it like we’ll do it forever. Did we know how unbelievably gorgeous that moment was?

Is that why we humans aren’t usually so present, because the uncertainty coupled with the beauty are way too much for us?

I think they were too much for me that day, so I probably lost myself in the usual things—What do we talk about now? Who starts? What do we do this evening, or tomorrow?

Happy birthday, Bernie.