70: The Birthday Present

70: The Birthday Present

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Messages from Heaven

The Birthday Present

He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present than the living man.

~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

As a girl, I didn’t know my paternal grandfather, Sam, very well but I grew closer to him as an adult, after he had a heart attack and moved into a small, one-bedroom apartment with his dog Brutus. Brutus was a spoiled, overweight, toothless Chihuahua that barked constantly. His dog, a houseplant, and my dad Charlie, were my grandfather’s only companions so I worried that he was lonely. I started making weekly visits and frequent calls. Our relationship grew and soon we were exchanging recipes, laughing, and talking every chance we could.

My new husband Mike loved him too, and we’d take him and Brut lunch on Sundays. Everybody’s favorite was Philly cheesesteaks with fresh brewed sweet tea. It was a big event for us all. Brut would beg, dance and spin in return for pieces of meat and bread. After lunch we’d sit watching the sparrows, redbirds, and squirrels at his feeder while Pawpaw told stories.

Pawpaw’s bad knee got worse, so I began doing everything from housekeeping to grocery shopping for him. We had several precious years together, but one night he had a stroke, never returning to his homey apartment. He went into a nursing home to get the care he needed and Brutus was given to a new family.

Months later, my birthday approached and my husband planned a romantic getaway. Pawpaw was adjusting well to his new residence, encouraging us to go on the trip. The night before my birthday I called him from the beach for one of our long talks. He informed me he was hospitalized. Before hanging up, he joyously shouted: “Happy Birthday!”

“Thanks Pawpaw,” I said, “but it’s not my birthday yet. Promise you’ll celebrate with me.” He and I both had the feeling he would not make it until the next day, but he promised anyway. A few hours later, at 5 a.m. on the morning of my birthday, I got the call. He had died in his sleep.

A few days later my maternal grandmother June and I visited an outdoor shopping mall. “I saw something yesterday that reminds me of you and your grandfather,” she said. She took me into a store and showed me a small wall plaque that said: “Perhaps they are not stars in the sky, but rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.” Although touching, the writing was chicken-scratched into a grayish, headstone-looking slab. She urged me to buy it but I couldn’t; the ugly memento did not remind me of Pawpaw.

The next evening, in another town, my husband and I finally celebrated my birthday. My husband spent an hour in a quaint gift shop before dinner. Sitting in the car outside the restaurant, he handed me a present. “I can’t wait to give you this,” he said. “It’s really special.” I opened the lid of the decorative brown box, beholding a beautifully painted Tuscany gold candle holder with delicately painted hearts and stars and calligraphy script that read: “Perhaps they are not stars in the sky, but rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.”

I was awestruck. I asked my husband if my grandma had told him about that quote after she showed it to me in the other store. “No,” he said. “I looked in there forever, like there was something specific I needed to find. When I saw this, I knew it was what I was looking for.”

My eyes filled with tears. Pawpaw had kept his promise to celebrate my birthday with me, leading my grandma to the message and then Mike to the same message in the form of a beautiful gift. I treasure that candle as a message and a gift from heaven. Pawpaw found a way to tell me he was happy. I knew then that he had not died on my birthday, but rather made a special journey that morning to someplace amazing. Each year on our special day, August 15th, I light that candle which reminds me that I have a grandpa in heaven who loves me.

~Deborah Sturgill

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