I could hardly believe it was my birthday again, that another year had passed so quickly. Last year my Cousin Chris had popped up and surprised me. He tracked me down to Charleston, SC and spent the day with me. It was pretty fantastic, and very memorable. I said to him "Same time next year?" and could tell he was taken aback. I told him I was kidding, but he said we'd have to wait and see.
Much to my delight, I got a call a few months back from his only daughter, Celia, asking me to please be in her wedding. She wanted me to be an Usher, and I was honored. And it just so happened that the blessed event was set to take place on my birthday. Double bonus!
Chris contacted me and offered to fly me up to Chicago, where he and his wife live. He said he'd get me a room at the Palmer House and buy me a new black suit for the wedding. I was more than overwhelmed by his generosity, and any attempt to argue with him about doing too much was completely futile.
I was feeling a bit melancholy after the rehearsal dinner, because they had shown a video-slide show retrospective of Celia and her husband to be. Their whole lives flashed before our eyes. But it also showed me Chris' life with his own little family, and I was saddened to realize just how much time we've missed over the years. When we were kids, Chris and I were inseparable, we loved to hang out and get into mischief. And since I was a year older, I was the leader and the one who often got us into trouble, always with our mothers.
Watching Chris' family life also made me think about the choices I've made. I have no wife, no kids, no immediate family. I don't have a good career and a nice house like he does. I drive around the USA, with no real home base. It gave me a case of the blues.
But after a night in the suite Chris had booked and paid for, I woke up refreshed and took a swim in the indoor pool. I got myself into the mindset that this day was all about Celia, and any emotional baggage I was carrying around needed to be jettisoned, pronto.
I went to the church early, and when it was time I did my job. The other Ushers were teenagers, sort of lackadaisical and distracted, so I had to pull them together and get them to focus. I've been in weddings before, and also used to be a movie theater doorman years ago. So I know the routine pretty good. In this case, no woman enters the church without being taken gently by the arm and led to a seat.
Once everyone was seated, including the other Ushers. I stepped into the church "lobby" area where Celia waited for Chris to walk her down the aisle. But Chris was absent, and it was time to go. Suddenly Celia began to cry, and I told her, "Chris will be here any second, please don't cry."
"I'm scared Uncle Bill. I don't know why, but I'm scared."
I shrugged. "I can tell you something about the guy you're going to marry."
She stopped crying and stared at me. "Tommy? What is it? Did he say something to you?"
"Nope. But I can tell you that Tommy is the luckiest guy on the face of the earth today, because he gets to marry you!"
Celia laughed and wiped the tears from her cheeks, then leaned in to give me a hug. "That was the most perfect thing you could've said. I love you, Uncle Bill."
Chris came hurrying in to join us. I tapped on my watch. "Son, son, son, you can't keep your daughter waiting, not today."
"I had to go to the bathroom."
"You couldn't have done that earlier? Plan ahead, Chris."
He punched me playfully on the arm, then took his daughter's arm. "You ready, honey?"
"Yes, Daddy." I opened the doors and they walked down the aisle.
The wedding was beautiful. Afterwards, everyone went to the Palmer House for a grand reception. Chris really pulled out all the stops, it was truly glorious. A ballroom full of tables was very crowded, and I'd never seen so many people at one wedding before. I noticed that there was an adjoining room, and I stepped inside to find a man setting up a sumptuous buffett. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"Sox or Cubs?" he said in a raspy voice.
"Beg pardon?" I asked.
"Simple question, Sox or Cubs?"
"I don't get the reference."
"What are you, a freakin' retard? Sorry, I mean a mentally challenged retard."
I shook my head. "I still don't know--"
He cut in. "Do you pull for the White Sox or the Cubs? Which baseball team do you like? Jeez, its not a tough question."
"Oh, well I'm not from Chicago."
He stared at me as if I was a complete idiot. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"I... well I... I guess I'm not sure."
"Dammit, just answer the question. Which team you root for?"
He slammed down the serving spoons he was holding. "I hope you're yanking my chain, cuz if you're serious I'm gonna be very pissed off."
"I usually cheer for the hometown team."
"What's your hometown?"
"Ain't no team in freakin' Birmingham."
I nodded. "And there you have it."
"Have what? You're talking in riddles."
"I like the team that plays in Wrigley Field."
He flicked the ashes from his cigarette onto the floor. "Now we're getting somewhere. I happen to be a Sox fan, but I won't hold it against you for being a Cubbie."
"So I'm gonna give you some advice. When they ring the dinner bell, you better get in here fast, cuz these fat motherfuckers are gonna be like pigs in a trough. Get my meaning? Whoa!" The last thing he said was in reference to a beautiful waitress who had just passed in front of us. "You know what I'd like to do to her? This!" He began to hump the table with the food on it. "And some of this!" He made crude gestures with his hand, then flicked his ashes. Half of them fell onto the food table.
"Hey!" yelled a large, round, hairy man as he came marching out from the kitchen. "What in hell you think you're doing?"
"Nothing, not a thing," said the man I'd been talking to.
"You're smoking around my food. You're humping my food table and making rude gestures towards a lady."
"Hey, she's just a waitress," he protested.
"She's your cousin! And you, you're fired! Get out!" The big man walked towards the kitchen. The younger man ran after him. "Oh come on, Pop, I didn't mean nothin'."
Celia peeked into the room. "Uncle Bill?"
"Hey girl, how are you? I was just trying to be first in the food line. Kidding, kidding."
She walked over and took my hand and gave it a squeeze. "You've been around all my life, and I love you and appreciate you. I just wanted to tell you how much it meant to me that you came here for my wedding."
"I'm honored that you asked me."
Chris poked his head into the room. "What are you two doing? Food isn't being served yet Bill, you trying to be first in line?"
"Always." We all laughed. "You know Celia, your Dad is a big success in the business world, but when we were kids I was the leader."
Chris snorted. "Yes, the one who was always leading us into trouble. Like the time you had me sit on the handle bars of your bike and went down a big hill? I went flying off, face first into a tree."
"Well, accidents happen."
"You were supposed to be the adult. You were supposed to take care of us."
"Stop right there. As you know, I have never been the adult." Chris and I chuckled.
"Really glad you could be here," he said to me.
"Remember last year on my birthday, I said 'Same time next year.'?"
"Yep, and I said 'We'll see'. And here we are."
Celia looked shocked. "Wait, today is your birthday, Uncle Bill?"
"That makes it extra special that you came." My heart was warmed by this sweet girl.
After the past two years, I don't know how I can possibly top it on my birthday next year.