Happy birthday

He turns nineteen tomorrow.

Last week, we were in Boston for a college interview. It was an opportunity for him to tell his story in person, this young man who attended three different high schools, spent nine winter weeks living in the woods and sleeping under a tarp, got into his share of mischeif, and has not always seen the point of homework.

“If your fifteen-year-old self were sitting here in the room right now,” the college admissions person asked, “what would you have to say to him?”

“Well,” the about-to-be-nineteen-year-old replied, “I’d have a lot of advice for him. But he wouldn’t listen to any of it.”

And then he thought for a moment, and added, “And actually, although I would really want to save him from some pain and trouble, I think I’m glad that he’d blow me off, because those were all lessons he really had to learn himself, the hard way, by living through them.”

Jack told me this as we drove out the Mass Pike, back toward his school. He said that, looking back, he wouldn’t want to change anything about these last few years, difficult as they were at times, because everything he’d done, and even the mistakes he’d made and the consequences he’d endured, had made him who he is today and brought him to the place he is right now — a place that is exactly where he wants to be.

I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on my younger son, nineteen years ago tomorrow. He was delivered out of my body and into my arms wide awake, curious, and hungry. He looked, to my husband and me, a bit like a tiny, benign Jack Nicholson, with his spray of fine dark hair pointing northeast and a funny little scrunch at the eyes. I remember gazing into that brand new and already beloved face and making a wish for the future, a wish that this child’s life would be one of ease and health and happiness.

Tonight, I send my son a different wish: that he will always regard his life with gratitude. Much as I might wish to protect him from strife, what I wish even more is that he might ride out the hard times knowing that each moment offers its lesson, each day its own blessing. Because the truth of it is, we don’t need things to be easy or perfect in order to be happy, nor will they ever be. Not for long, anyway. Life is hard, and loss and disappointment are always part of the equation, as Jack has already figured out. And yet, as David Steindl-Rast writes, “Happiness is not what makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.”

I baked Jack a cake, the very same cake he had when he was nine, with M&Ms and walnuts and chocolate chips on the top. I packed it up in a box, along with plates and napkins and forks and even a few party hats, and mailed it to arrive tomorrow, in time for him to gather some dorm mates around to help eat it. And I hope that sometime during the day, between class and soccer and basketball practice and dinner and study hall and hanging out with friends, he pauses for just a moment to regard his own young life as the fathomless mystery it is. May he continue to grow up knowing that the boredom and pain of life are as essential as the excitement and the gladness. May he come to understand that every choice he makes matters. As does every minute of every precious day. And may he begin to see that all the moments, even the little ones, are key moments, and that life, yes life itself, is the gift.

for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. Oh, happy, happy birthday. What a marvelous letter this is. I read it with tears (predictably) streaming down my face. The fathomless mystery of life. I sincerely hope my own children have a similar wisdom and perspective in 10 years when they are 19 (and 16).

  2. What a wise soul he has!!! Someone so young and yet so insightful! Happiest Birthday Wishes!! Thanks for sharing Katrina…as always a pleasure to read.

  3. I so enjoy checking out your blog for new entries. Each one makes me smile and most make me cry…remembering my own children; now grown, married and with children. All but our youngest who is in college…still finding his way. Oh how I wish I had read, “The Gift of the Ordinary Day”, when he was in high school. It was as if you had read my mind and felt my emotions and had written them down…

    Thank you for writing about how so many of us feel…

  4. Farida Zaveri says:

    Jack has grown to be a very sensible young man… You should be so proud…All these moments… wrapped up in your memory box…. My son has just come home after giving his Year 12 exams….. I have loved each & every moment of these 17 years together… time flies away..but it is so satisfying to see your little bundle of love grow to be a Young & sensitive young Man… so many lessons learned through so many experiences….

  5. Happy happy birthday to Jack. I adore that he knows, at 18 years and 364 days, that he shouldn’t, or wouldn’t, wish away the hard stuff.

    “Life itself is the gift”. Indeed. Thank you, as always, for the gift of your words.

  6. I so wish you were my neighbor next door….what a blessing you are…not to mention you are a wonderful mom. I once again read this post with tears in my eyes. I’m only beginning the gift of an ordinary day ….so far loved the line…”becoming the person they were meant to be” and “we outgrow phases of our life” however that wonderful son of yours will never outgrow that special cake you sent while he is living the life he was meant to….
    You’re truly a blessing!!!!

  7. I’m not surprised that a son of yours has grown into a man of wisdom. Job well done my dear friend. And, BTW, how do you mail a cake with frosting?

  8. Happy Birthday to your Jack! I am so impressed with his maturity and wisdom–I know I wasn’t thinking at his level when I turned 19. Not even close.

  9. Happy birthday to your son. What a privilege it is to read your letter to him.

    And “a tiny, benign Jack Nicholson” is one of the better descriptions I’ve read in some time. (Is that where you got his name?) 🙂

  10. Happy Birthday to Jack! Oh how I love how you connect the past to the present in this piece. And I love this idea that the wishes, hopes, and dreams we have for our children when they are born can change over time; we grow right alongside them, don’t we? Lovely as always.

  11. Beautiful, simply beautiful. Blessings to you and birthday blessings to your son!

  12. I so admire your courage to share all of your ups and downs. Each day is a journey, especially with one who likes to learn the hard way. I am also blessed with one who loves to experience life in his own terms. Bless you for helping me have a better attitude.

  13. Anne R. Brusca says:

    I love your son…….and we’ve never met ! Maybe it’s because I have three sons myself (two in their 50’s and one in his 40’s) plus two daughters in their 50’s. You must be so proud of your family. Happy Birthday to Jack.

  14. Happy Birthday, Jack! You’re a wise young man.

    Katrina, my husband shares the same birthday, November 8th. And his cake had M&Ms on it, too…Thought the connection was worth sharing with you : )

  15. Happy Birthday Jack! You are an amazing young man.

  16. What a rich and beautiful family you have, Katrina. Happy Birthday to Jack. May he always feel the gratitude he has worked so hard for. Best of Luck, Jack in your pursuit of college. You have a lot to share with this world.

  17. I really appreciated this today, both joining in your good wishes and benefiting from them at the same time. Namaste

  18. Happy Birthday Jack.

    I think that this kind of gratitude is the thing most of us most need. Wise of him to see a glimmer of it now!

  19. He chose you well. I can’t think better of him.

  20. Ah, this gives me hope as I am up to my ears of life with a 15 year-old. I need constant reminders that it really is going to be okay . . .
    Happy 19 to your young man.

  21. As always your words go right to my heart, always right behind you with my 2 boys (16 and 14 this Sunday). I love how you experience them with wisdom and enough love to do the hardest thing possible letting them be who they are and letting go when necessary.

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