Tag Archives: birthdays

Monday Musings: My Mother and My Daughter

Mom and meMy mother would be 102 years old today, which speaks to a) how very old I am, and b) how uncommonly old she was when she and my father had me. I was born at the end of the Baby Boom, when most couples in their early-forties were done having children. Mom always worried that she would be too old to be a good mother to me, whatever that might have meant. She shouldn’t have worried. She was a wonderful mother — caring, involved, just intrusive enough to make me feel loved without being so intrusive that I felt smothered.

I’ve written about her before in this space, touching on her intellect, her curiosity, her love of the arts, her passion for travel, her warmth and humor and beauty and wisdom. We lost her far too early, to a cancer that today’s patients tolerate with relative ease. My father, who worshipped her and shared over fifty years of his life with her, couldn’t survive long without her. Within fifteen months of her death, he was gone, too.

I miss them both every day, and think about them constantly. I have thought for many years that I was too young to lose both parents.

Okay, this is about to get a little strange . . . .

I am not a religious person, and even if I were, my faith does not believe in heaven or an afterlife. Rather, my faith focuses on this life, on doing good deeds and living honorably in our time on this earth.

But since losing our older daughter, I have come to think about such things somewhat differently. I still don’t put stock in notions of heaven and hell. I do choose to believe, though, that even after the body dies, the spirit lives on. Alex was too brilliant a light for a simple illness, no matter how virulent and cruel, to extinguish. For that matter, so were my mother and father; so was my brother.

And so, I choose to believe that Alex is with her grandmother and grandfather now. That my mom and dad, and also my brother Bill, are taking care of her, helping a too-young soul cope with whatever place they are in. Alex never really knew her Gram. She only knew Grampsie as a toddler. She and Uncle Bubba were incredibly close. But they are all family, and they are together now, loving one another, comforting one another.

I choose to imagine my mother reveling in the company of this grandchild she only met as an infant, getting to know the intelligent, confident, funny, powerful, courageous young woman she became. I can hear them laughing together. I can imagine them speaking of books and art, travel and good food. They shared so many interests — they would have so much to discuss! I expect they would poke some fun at me. I know Alex would speak glowingly to her — to all of them — of her amazing younger sister, whom neither of my parents ever met.

This is how I choose to mark Mom’s birthday this year. The thought comforts me, even as it stings my eyes and blurs my vision.

Happy birthday, Mom. Take care of Alex for us. I love you.

Monday Musings: About That Birthday I Was Dreading . . . .

“You want to complain about a birthday?” Life said. “I’ll give you a birthday to complain about.”

Last week, as usual, I wrote two posts. On Monday, I ruminated about my approaching birthday, making it clear that I was feeling a bit down about growing older and was having trouble putting myself in the birthday spirit. And then, in my Professional Wednesday post, I began a new series of posts — “What Holds Me Back” — about the things that sometimes limit my productivity. And I began the series with an entry about coping with life issues in general.

As it happens, I managed to write both posts ahead of time. I had them ready to go before the weekend was over. And boy did those posts come back to bite me in the ass.

In the Wednesday post, I wrote this about life, or rather Life, which I anthropomorphized to make a point:

“Life is a fickle bastard, with a cruel streak a mile wide, a perverse — at times evil — sense of humor, and a preternatural knack for intruding at the absolute worst moment. But Life can also be charming, deeply attractive, kind, generous, and downright fun . . . . Life is as changeable as March weather, as unpredictable as the best storyline, and as relentless as time itself. Life happens constantly; Life will not sit quietly in a corner reading a book and respecting our need for calm just because we have a looming deadline or a new idea we are eager to explore. Life lives to mess with us.”

Given how well I seem to understand Life’s perverse nature, you’d think I would have known what would happen if I complained about an upcoming birthday.

My birthday was yesterday. I have spent the last week sick with Covid. Nancy and I made plans to travel for the weekend, to get down to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to do some hiking and birdwatching and photography. We had to cancel the trip. She made me a cake last weekend, while I was writing the aforementioned posts. We wound up freezing it, because with Covid stealing my sense of smell, I couldn’t taste it at all.

“You want to complain about a birthday?” Life said. “I’ll give you a birthday to complain about.”

Jokes and sarcasm aside, I have to say, “Message received.”

Birthdays, someone once said, are the price we pay for growing older. We love them as kids, of course. We want nothing more than to add to the running total, to get Older, because with Older comes perks, not to mention presents. The presents get better with age. The perks too, for a while, and then less so. But my dad always used to say about getting older, “it’s better than the alternative.”

I won’t spend a lot of time on the “yes, life is hard, but I have so much to be thankful for” thing. I touched on this last week and it remains true. My life IS hard these days. I know precious few people who have it easy. And I am deeply grateful for the life I have, private and professional. But reading back through last Monday’s post, I realize I wasn’t complaining so much as struggling to accept what I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to prevent. I was down, and I wrote about it.

And again, Life was, like, “You’re think you’re down now? Hold my beer.”

So, here I am, on the day after my birthday, at the end of a truly crappy week of fever and coughing and isolation and in-home masking and tasteless, aroma-less food . . . and I feel much better about turning a year older than I would have imagined possible when writing last week’s post. Like some Jimmy-Stewart-from-It’s-A-Wonderful-Life wannabe, I have seen that things could be substantially worse than they are, that being a youthful (not to mention immature) 60 is really not half bad. It’s not that I was imagining myself as a Covid patient forever, but rather that I was made hyper-aware of all the things I value in my routine, all the things I love to do — things that were denied me by the fever and taste-loss and social distancing. My morning workout, my walks, my regular work schedule, relaxed time with Nancy, get-togethers with friends, bird walks and photo walks and signing along with my guitar (my voice is still recovering), good wine and good whisky and all the wonderful foods Nancy and I make and eat.

The everyday, the humdrum, the same old same old — it turns out, I love that shit. My routine is pretty darn good, and the little things I enjoy each day — my morning smoothie and afternoon iced coffee, our household guac recipe — mean more to me than I realized, at least until I couldn’t taste them anymore. Life’s challenges remain, and, yeah, I’m sixty fucking years old. But I’m good, thanks. And when I’m not, I know that the people I love have my back. There are far, far worse things.

Wishing you all a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: Facing Down a Big Birthday

I am staring down the barrel of a big birthday. This time next week, I’ll have passed a dubious milestone, and the fact is, right now I’m struggling a bit with the whole getting older thing.

Yes, I know the clichés. Even on my birthday, I only get a day older. Age is a state of mind. Growing older beats the alternative.

None of them is helping right now.

I remember feeling similarly ten years ago, as I neared my last milestone birthday. I was (and am again) acutely aware of being far closer to my dotage than to my youth. Since that last big birthday, I’ve lost a brother, watched as my older daughter battles serious illness, lost my mother-in-law and a brother-in-law, and more friends than I care to count. Life has been challenging, and at the same time wondrous and fun and rewarding, making it feel all the more precious.

Sometimes I write posts with a lesson in mind, or as a way of dispensing what little wisdom I might have. Other times, I write searching for answers. This post doesn’t fit neatly into either of those patterns. I have no wisdom today. I don’t know what lesson I might offer to myself, much less to someone else. And, frankly, I am not seeking advice from others. As I say, I know the platitudes. I am deeply grateful for all I have and all I have accomplished. And I am certain the answer for what ails me right now lies entirely within.

I think in part I am eager — impatient, even — to get on with the next phase of my life. Nancy and I have raised our children, we have enjoyed our careers, we have worked hard to set ourselves up financially for what we call “retirement,” although I don’t think it will really be a retirement in any traditional sense. I don’t intend to stop working, and while Nancy is ready for whatever might be next, she is also open to any and all possibilities in that respect. All I know is that I am looking forward to changing the pace of the life we share so that we can enjoy each other and the things we love doing together.

And so in a way, my resistance to this birthday is rooted in that impatience, but also in the understanding that the work we did to get to this point in our shared life took thirty-plus years and swooped by in a flash of laughter and love, struggle and grief. The time we have left to enjoy the fruits of that work feels potentially too brief by comparison.

When Nancy and I started dating (in our mid-late twenties), we told each other we would give the relationship eighty years, and if at the end of those eighty years together we felt the relationship wasn’t working anymore, we’d go our separate ways. Obviously, we said this with tongues firmly in cheek. But in all honestly, I want my eighty years. Every one of them. Right now, that romantic fantasy is bumping up against the reality of my 60th birthday.

I have written before of my emotional health issues. I have been candid about my struggles and also about the comfort and growth I have found in therapy. I have learned that whatever I am working on at a particular moment rarely impacts my mood and health in a vacuum. It’s all connected, even if I don’t always see the connections right away. I am certain my current hyper-awareness of my own mortality is tied to my brother Bill’s death five years ago, and also to my ongoing worries about my daughter’s health. I know it is connected as well to lingering professional ambitions and dissatisfaction with elements of my career path.

This is what I meant when I said the answers lie within. I know that next week I will only be seven days older than I am now, not a year. I know as well that the coming decade will be filled with . . . well, with life — with pleasure and pain, joy and sadness, good days and bad. Many have told me that they have LOVED life in their sixties. I intend to as well.

But to draw inspiration from the incomparable Ned Ryerson, I also know that first step is going to be a doozy . . . .

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Remembering My Brother Bill

Five years ago this week, my family—spouse and kids, brother and sister and their families, cousins—gathered in northern Massachusetts to say goodbye to my oldest brother, Bill, who had passed away earlier in the year after a brief, intense battle with lymphoma.

Five years ago.

Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been so long.

My brother, Bill
Bill in 1976, while visiting me at sleep away camp.

Bill was older than me by nearly fifteen years. Same parents; I was a mistake. A happy one, my folks always claimed, but a mistake nevertheless. Despite the age difference between us, Bill and I were very close, drawn together by shared passions for music, for baseball, for nature and birds, for literature, for history. He (and Jim, our middle brother) introduced me to much of the music I still love to this day, everything from the Rolling Stones and Little Feat to Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice. Bill was also a musician—a fantastic vocalist and skilled blues harmonica player. He and I performed a short set together back when I was in college—a memory I still cherish, and one of the coolest things we ever did together.

Bill, David, Jim
Left to right, Bill, me, Jim. Back in 1990 or so, when I, at least, still had hair.

He and I didn’t get to see each other nearly as often as either of us would have liked, but usually we spoke weekly, sometimes more. One of us would hear a new piece of music, or see some unbelievable highlight from a pennant race game, or finish reading something the other would just love—whatever. And it would prompt a phone call. An excuse, really, for the joy and comfort we each derived from speaking to the other. (And I should add here that Bill had a very similar relationship with Jim. Some of the shared interests were different but they were just as close. And I should add as well that to this day Jim and I have the same sort of relationship as well. We three were/are bound by so much.)

Like many relationships, though, mine with Bill was as complicated as it was loving. He struggled all his life with mental health issues and substance abuse. For several years, when his life-long battle with alcoholism raged with particular ferocity, he drew me into his struggles as a reluctant enabler. He confided in me, called me in the midst of binges, then swore me to secrecy, telling me I couldn’t tell our parents. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, living a continent away in California, trying to survive my first years of graduate school. I still remember those conversations with disturbing clarity. Slurred, confused, maudlin, affectionate, but also manipulative, all against the background noises of sloshing bourbon and ice cubes clacking against the edges of a crystal tumbler. I finally broke out of the pattern, but those phone calls took their toll on me, and, for a time, on our friendship.

Bill was a brilliant poet, but after the dissolution of his marriage and the loss of a job he truly loved, he stopped writing. He could have had a writing career. He was that good. On some level, I believe he resented the fact that I managed to turn my dream of being an author into a profession. He read what many call “literary fiction” and often expressed, subtly or not, his belief that writing fantasy was a waste of my talent. At the same time, he kept all of my books displayed prominently on shelves in his home.

With Bill, such contradictions were fairly common.

Uncle Bubba, Erin, and Alex
Bill with Erin (center) and Alex, back around 2004.

He loved his nieces and nephew—my girls (who, for reasons too convoluted to explain here, used to call him Uncle Bubba), Jim’s son and daughter, our sister Liz’s son and daughter—and doted on them, more like an attentive grandparent than an uncle. But often during family get-togethers he would, without warning, grow moody, sullen, silent. To this day, I wonder if on some level being with our families made him regret choices he made earlier in life, when he might have started his own family.

Yet, as difficult as he could be, he was always the king of whatever room he entered. He was beautiful, he had unbelievable charisma, he was a terrific storyteller. He was also brilliant, well-read, funny as hell, and stunningly generous. He had the best laugh I have ever heard. I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating: his laugh was so wonderful, it made others want to be funny. Eliciting that laugh was like winning the humor lottery.

The memorial in 2017 that drew my family and me to Massachusetts on a crisp, gorgeous fall day, coincided with Bill’s birthday, which would be tomorrow. He would be 74 if he was still with us. He would lament how old that sounds, but then make some crack about Mick Jagger still touring at 79. (Once he and I were joking about something and I made some remark about me being more immature than he was, and he said, “Hey, man! I was immature before you were born!”)

I miss him every day. I have a musical mix on my phone that I named for him. It includes all the music he turned me on to, all the music we used to talk about during those many phone calls, and some stuff I’ve discovered since he died that I know he would have loved. The playlist is constantly growing.

Happy birthday, Bubba. Love you.

Monday Musings: Celebrating Nancy

David and Nancy
Us in Dublin, Ireland for WorldCon 2019. (Photo by Cat Sparks)

I mention Nancy on this blog quite often, yet, I rarely write about her. Well, she has a big birthday coming up this week (tomorrow) — a BIG birthday — and so this seems as good a time as any to sing her praises.

For those who have somehow missed the references, Nancy is my wife of thirty-plus years. She and I met at Stanford, when we were both getting our Ph.D.s. She was a first-year grad student in biology; I was in my second year in the history program. We met because one of her suite-mates in grad school housing, another history candidate, brought her to the department’s weekly grad student card game at the on-campus pub.

Yes, we met over a game of hearts, and we were both smitten that very day. Nancy later confessed that she saw me and thought, “Oh, this is the guy I’m going to marry.” Poor thing . . . . For my part, being a guy, I saw her and thought, “Wow!”

Wedding Day Photo 1
Our wedding day, 1991.

We were married in the Rodin Sculpture Garden beside Stanford’s art museum, and a year later moved to Tennessee so that Nancy could take an assistant professorship at Sewanee: The University of the South. Our plan was to stay for a couple of years, and if nothing worked out for me in the history department, we’d leave for wherever and start again with me taking the offered job and her trying to work something out. Rinse, repeat until both of us were employed. That was the idea. But at her urging I started to pursue my lifelong dream of writing fantasy professionally, and before we had to leave, I got my first publishing contract. Thirty years later, we’re still here.

Nancy provost installation
Our family, the day Nancy was officially made provost of the university. Erin is on the left, Alex is on the right.

In that time, Nancy has been assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, and chairperson of her department. She has been appointed to a named chair in the biology department (for those unfamiliar with academia, this is big deal). She has received research grants to support her scholarship from a host of organizations and agencies, including the National Science Foundation. She has been an associate dean, associate provost, university provost, and, for the past nine months, acting president of the university. She is the first woman ever to serve as Sewanee’s president.

I am a pretty confident person. I believe in my creative abilities, and I believe in my own intelligence. I like to think that I’m usually one of the smartest people in whatever room I’m in. And yet, when both of us are home, I’m not even the smartest person in my own kitchen.

Erin, Nancy, Alex
Erin, Nancy, and Alex.

Nancy is a creative thinker, too, though in an entirely different way. Her creativity, her brilliance, is rooted in her ability to approach any problem, any issue, at any given time, from multiple perspectives. This is what has made her such a successful scientist, and it is what informs her strategic thinking as an institutional leader. She is also a person of remarkable yet quiet strength. She is serving as president, coping with issues large and small, interacting with people in various university constituencies who, let us say, sometimes forget how to be their best selves. She is also, like me, dealing with the illness of her child. She recently lost her mother and, with her brothers, had to help get her father situated in an assisted living community. She is spouse, mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, community leader. She does all of this with composure, with grace, with her sparkling and mischievous wit, with an equanimity that humbles and dazzles me on a daily basis.

Nancy and Samantha
Back when we first started dating. Nancy is the one on the left . . .

Yes, I adore her. I would never claim to be a neutral observer where Nancy is concerned. But you don’t have to trust me on any of what I’ve written here. Others will say it as well, including many who don’t always see eye-to-eye with her. That is part of her charm. She can disarm with a smile. She can discuss without bringing ego to the conversation, and — something truly rare in today’s world — she can agree cordially to disagree.

And still I haven’t begun to scratch the surface when it comes to telling you about her. She is far more than her professional activities. She knits and gardens, she brews beer and makes AMAZING Indian, Thai, Moroccan, and Southwestern cuisine, not to mention gorgeous fresh bread and the best chocolate chip cookies anywhere. She has run triathlons and used to be an active rock climber. She loves to travel and to hike (and she tolerates my birdwatching interruptions when we’re hiking together). She plays cards and board games and is somehow really good at all of them.

I’ll stop now. Except to say she’s the love of my life, my partner in silliness, my best friend. And yeah, tomorrow’s her birthday.

Happy birthday, Sweetie. Love you.

From the Archives: A Photo I Took Several Birthdays Ago

Yeah, today’s my birthday. I’m a year older, but, I assure you, no more mature.

I have a lot going on today — work stuff. So I don’t have time to for much of a post. But I thought I would share this photo from a few birthday’s ago — seven actually. Nancy and I went to Chicago for my birthday week and had a wonderful visit. In the middle of the week, a beautiful snowfall transformed the city. This photo, taken along Michigan Avenue, was probably my favorite from the whole trip. I hope you like it.

Have a wonderful weekend. Stay safe, be kind to one another.Chicago Snow, March 2014, by David B. Coe

 

Creative Friday: My Brother the Artist

For this week’s Creative Friday post, I would like to tell you about my brother, Jim. [JamesCoe.com] It happens to be his birthday, so please feel free to wish him many happy returns of the day.

Jim is a painter. He started painting when he was all of fifteen years old. At that time, he was drawn to painting birds. Birdwatching had become a sort of obsession for Jim, Bill, and me, and Jim had a preternatural ability to capture not only correct plumage and structure, but also attitude and mannerism. His early works were stunning, the work of a prodigy.

My brother, Jim, painting on Martha's Vineyard, October 2017
My brother, Jim, painting on Martha’s Vineyard, October 2017

For a time, he worked as a bird illustrator, and you can still find field guides and even an ornithology textbook with his work in it. Eventually, though, he wanted to get away from the limiting world of illustration, and he turned to plein air painting. For more than twenty years now, he has been painting landscapes, some with birds in them, some without. His work is known throughout the world. It hangs in galleries and museums. He has been honored again and again by fellow artists and art aficionados.

And never once has this praise gone to his head. Because that’s the other thing about my older brother: not only is he the creative person I admire most in this world, he is the kindest, gentlest soul I know.

His art has been a presence in my life for almost as long as I can remember. When I was young, I tried to emulate him, hoping that I might be an artist someday as well. How did I do? Well, I write fantasy now, so that should tell you…

We have Jim’s work all over our house, and I am always eager for another of his pieces. They’re just that good.

But more important still is the fact that, outside of Nancy and our girls, he is the best friend I have in the world.

Happy birthday, Bro. Love you.

"Pond Light; Sun Dance" by James Coe
“Pond Light; Sun Dance” by James Coe