The Birthday Party

It was that time when your Uncle Rob was living
with your mother to help her out, do you remember?
When we arrived, the two of them were sitting
in their recliners like old marrieds, Rob, who always
liked dogs better than people, greeting not us,
but Woody, with all his heart. You walked straight
ahead with your tuna casserole to heat it up
in the kitchen while I followed carrying our bag
of gifts and the cake in my arms, past the new first-
floor bathroom with the white toilet seat as high
as my cake box. Herman had been dead for years,
of course, but he was all around us in the dining room
by way of his colored photographs of the camp
and the White Mountains that seemed to shimmer
in the August light. I remember the smell of the hot
rolls on the table and your casserole, its cheese
bubbling up into the breadcrumbs. Beside you
on her pillow wearing the napkin you tucked under
her chin, your mother looked a little like your child,
as in a sense she was. But when she told her story
about her older sister on the farm, still washing
her son’s hair every week at age eighty-nine,
she was as funny as she always was. On that day,
Sue must have been – wasn’t she? – eighty-three
herself, yet when you set the cake in front of her,
she blew out all eight candles and one to grown on
with a single breath. No way she was going to waste
her time with some wish about her uncertain future,
she called for the piece of cake she’d looked forward to
and dug right in. Meanwhile Rob, for his part, glanced
each way, then offered some of his cake to the dog
under the table, both of them assuming that the little
blessings of ordinary life as we all know them
would go on forever, no matter what. And they were right.