To any pair of eyes, it would seem the road ahead stretches into emptiness forever. Barren lands reach out to the horizon all around me, except for the road ahead and the road behind. There, hot and unforgiving asphalt shines under the summer sun. When I was young, having a summertime birthday was more than I could hope for. Pools, beaches, Disney World; it didn’t really matter where I celebrated my birthday, but it always ended up being somewhere fun.
Had I kept my young eyes, the brown land around me would be an adventure. I’d be a passenger in this car, staring out the window, imaging myself astride a horse and galloping towards the setting sun. But my eyes were old before I, as a whole, could be named in kind. Death followed me too soon and too close, but always skipped me. I buried my parents while in my 20s, just after returning from Vietnam. It’s a child’s duty, I suppose, to bury their parents. I just hadn’t expected it to come so soon. When I was blessed with the company of a smart, beautiful woman who became my wife, I had to part with her earlier than I wished, too. The only child we ever conceived together died in my arms shortly after being born. Some kind of heart condition, the doctor told us. That gave us a heart condition of our own. My wife, especially. I tried to find and hold any light I could grasp in that dark place, but Catherine was never the same after that. A logical person might think it dramatic to say she died of heartbreak, but that’s what I believe. She passed away at 32 years of age on what would have been – should have been – our son’s fifth birthday.
Her green eyes haunt my peripheral vision. We used to drive this way together every summer, even after the baby, to see the coastline the one time a year we were able to. It had become tradition somewhere along the way. There were years we could barely afford it, but my wife always made sure, somehow, that we saw the ocean for my birthday. After she died, I kept the tradition on my own. I sorta figure she’d like that. My first year alone, I took her ashes with me. I buckled her into the front seat, where she belonged, and even talked to her on the way. The ocean took her remains and my tears.
So my old eyes stare out at the empty road ahead. It’s a long and lonely path without her, but I’ve done it so many years that driving there is automatic. Like a bird flying south for the winter, I steer east for the summer. I find myself wondering who will bring me here when I’ve died. I want my ashes in the sea. I want my ashes with her. But I have no one now who’ll add their salt to the sea over my passing.
I see stars beginning to twinkle in the sky as the sun disappears. As if on cue, an exit sign pops up on the side of the road where a moment ago there was only horizon. I bet it’s for the Days Inn we always stopped at. Moments later, I see that it is. This is my stop for the night.
The blue eyes of the man at the desk greet me without emotion, but I smile at him anyway. There’s someone new here every single year, but they all seem to possess the same exact disdain for their job. Can’t say as I blame ‘em. So, I smile, even though I can’t really think of a reason to.
My eyes meet their reflection in the mirror of the bathroom I will, for twelve hours, call my own. I think about how we should have stayed in the same room every year. I’m not sure why it’s important. I think again about selling everything I have left back home and moving out to the beach, or at least closer to it. But then I’d lose the journey. I sit my old bones down on the bed and reconsider how much journey I have left in me as my joints protest my every move. Gingerly, I recline. Softly, I sigh.
Tears form in my eyes. I’m a day behind schedule. I left too late. Today is my birthday and I’m still miles from the ocean. For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel wet sand between my toes as I age another year. Sitting back up, I look towards the ceiling. In my mind, I can see the stars I know are there. In my mind, I imagine my lost loved ones looking down at me. “Will it be all right?” I want to ask. I know the answer. I clean up for bed and set an early alarm for tomorrow morning. Then I creak and crack my way into the most comfortable position I can manage.
I close my eyes. And, although I have just turned seventy, I feel I have been this old for a very long time.