An eerie absence of everything familiar troubled Ben, yet he hesitated to move since the bed felt more comfortable than it had in years. He compromised; didn’t move a muscle other than to strain an ear and listen for sounds he normally tried to shut out – squawking birds, slamming doors, fights at the school bus stop, and Felix’s damned muffler. Nothing. Surely, this lack of pain and annoyance could only mean one thing: he had died in his sleep. What a disappointing state of neither-good-nor-bad death turned out to be.
He opened an eye, found the midmorning sun peeking under the curtain instead of halos or pitchforks, and abandoned the original premise. The early morning sounds were missing because he had slept past them. He wiggled his toes, lifted an arm and leg, and then repeated the process several times. Considering he had nothing to account for this mysterious relief, he especially appreciated the sensation of movement without pain.
Refusing to question or temp this gift of luck, he eased from the bed and weighed options. He could use the extra energy to vacuum, or scrub the shower tiles he had neglected for so long. Or, he could capitalize on the emotional lift of having been through death and rebirth, and work on Amy’s birthday poem. While making the bed, he decided the carpet and shower tiles could wait for another good day. Thirteenth birthdays only happened once, and didn’t wait for anything.
This was a big year for birthdays in the Tranton family. Their baby would hit the teens, Leonard--always Ben’s baby--would turn forty in April, with his wife following the next month. If all went according to schedule, Ben would turn seventy before the year ended.
Walking taller than he had in months, Ben padded to the kitchen and opened the pantry door. He bypassed the frosted mini wheats he would normally have pulled off the bottom shelf and reached up—still pain free—for the tin box on the top shelf, appreciating the heart swell that always accompanied contact with the tin.
He left the blinds closed, the lights off, the television and radio that he normally turned on for company silent, and carried the box to the table. Shielded from intrusion or distraction, he ran a hand over the faded Pansy lid. The picture on the tin was probably out-dated, which meant the matching stationary inside would be as well. That didn’t matter; after writing twenty-seven birthday poems on Pansies, he would not break tradition for the sake of style.
The lid popped off easily now. With it came the memories. The week before Leonard was born, Mary had come in from her baby shower with an assortment of bottles, embroidered bibs, diapers, knitted booties and blankets – and one odd tin of Pansy stationary from her Auntie Edna. Incensed when Ben laughed and suggested that Auntie Edna had finally lost her last marble, Mary informed him that she would write her thank you notes on that paper, making it a most appropriate gift.
Trouble started when Mary adopted a smug attitude and prissed her Pansy tin over to the Formica table she could barely fit her pregnant belly under. She mistook Ben’s smile as more ribbing, when in fact, the only thought in his head was that he had never seen her look more beautiful. Love was also responsible for the bigger smile that had encouraged her to toss the dishtowel at him.
Fixed on her goal, Mary ignored him and returned to her tin. She pulled up one corner of the lid, and another secured itself more tightly on the opposite corner. She rotated corners, turned the tin in every position on the table, held it between her knees and pried the lid with both hands, hit it with her fists, employed the assistance of the bottle opener and pliers. He had reached for the tin, offered to help, several times, but she ignored him.
Ben held the lid to his chest now and re-ran every expression on her fact that night, the emotions he had felt while watching her struggle with that tin, and all the love he had carried for her since.
Mary never got the lid off the tin, nor did Ben open it to write her thank you notes after she died. He hadn’t opened it until years later, when their first granddaughter was born, and he used the first sheet to thank his daughter-in-law for that gift.
He fanned the few remaining sheets. There were enough to cover the birthdays he had left, as long as he didn’t get too wordy or mess up. Soon, boyfriends would supply whispers of love to his granddaughters. They would only look to him for wisdom. That wouldn’t take much space.
Amy’s thirteenth poem came easily, two drafts on the back of a dry-cleaning ad, and one perfect version copied onto Pansy-bordered stationary. While he had the paper out, he wrote a thank you note to Mary for understanding why he had never acknowledged his grief on the anniversary of her death. It was important that Leonard celebrate that date as the day of his birth without being reminded that his life had taken hers.
Ben placed Mary’s note in the bottom of the tin, wiped his eyes with a napkin, and returned the Pansies to the pantry until September, when Priscilla would turn sixteen. He took a deep breath, opened the blinds, and filled the coffeemaker with water, ready to restart his day - filled with everything familiar.