Birthday candles for your next year.

It is thirteen hours since I wished you happy birthday, you friend of mine who will always be two weeks younger than I, as long as we both shall live. The air is cold tonight; I have walked my tipsy circuit from dinner with a parent to a bookstore laugh with a student to the spring-dark newly leafy gravel path to the library. I have studied the faculty art in the library basement, loving that at 11 p.m. I am out and alone and carrying my stack of books and peering at the strange strands of hair and braided wire and transparencies that build one woman's art, the funny square frames and pop culture collages (complete with plastic army men and astronauts!) that make one man's. One photograph shows a woman and a child, the woman presumably a mother, the child presumably a son, the mother holding out to her son the halves of a broken arrow while he ignores her. There are bodies and relationships and disasters and ecstasies everywhere I turn. I turn to leave.

Outside, it is still dark, and still cold; the coating of considerable heat that the library has provided cracks and falls away within seconds of my stepping out of the building's circles of light. I head back to the officehouse, which has been so different without you this year, and I keep on wondering how the rest of your day was, after the walk to school and the elevator ride and the closing of the office door and the turning to your version of this semester's endgame.

I thought of you all day. I thought of you when I realized the horse chestnuts are blooming, right near where I took your picture last year, right where we walked by to get our snacks on Wednesday evenings. Did you know their flowers are called candles? When I first saw them, as I strolled around London the summer I lived there researching, I was sure they were some utterly alien flower that never appeared in the U.S.; instead, I'd simply never seen them bloom. When you see them from afar, they look like monstrous conic lights in these trees whose leaves are already simply so large.


But up close, each candle is a multitude, a plenty of white and yellow and pink. When I approached the tree to take its picture, a breeze struck up, and I had to laugh at our funny dance, this branch and I.


(I will admit that I did not think of you as I photographed this oak, but I'm putting the picture in anyway, because maybe your oak looks like this oak now.)


I thought of you when I looked for poems about chestnut candles and found this one, so right:


A Birthday Candle

Thirty today, I saw
The trees flare briefly like
The candles on a cake,
As the sun went down the sky,
A momentary flash,
Yet there was time to wish

--Donald Justice

I thought of you when the mother at dinner toasted her son, across the table, and talked about getting ready to turn 50, and I thought of this big year but also about where we might be when we can say, "Now we are 50."

But now we are 30.

Best of all, I think, I thought of you and the nest in your dogwood tree when I started reading John James Audubon's essay "The Pewee Flycatcher," in which he observes in minutest detail the nesting pewees on his Pennsylvania plantation:

Their mutual caresses, simple as they might have seemed to another, and the delicate manner used by the male to please his mate, riveted my eyes on these birds and excited sensations which I can never forget.
The female one day spent the greater part of the time in her nest; she frequently changed her position; her mate exhibited much uneasiness; he would alight by her sometimes, sit by her side for a moment and, suddenly flying out, would return with an insect which she took from his bill with apparent gratification. About three o'clock in the afternoon I saw the uneasiness of the female increase; the male showed an unusual appearance of despondence, when of a sudden the female rose on her feet, looked sidewise under her and flying out, followed by her attentive consort, left the cave, rose high in the air, performing evolutions more curious to me than any I had seen before. They flew about over the water, the female leading her mate as it were through her own meanderings. Leaving the Pewees to their avocations I peeped into their nest and saw there their first egg, so white and so transparent--for I believe, reader, that eggs soon lose this peculiar transparency after being laid--that to me the sight was more pleasant than if I had met with a diamond of the same size. The knowledge that in an enclosure so frail, life already existed, and that ere many weeks would elapse, a weak, delicate and helpless creature, but perfect in all its parts, would burst the shell and immediately call for the most tender care and attention of its anxious parents, filled my mind with as much wonder as when looking towards the heavens I searched, alas! in vain, for the true import of all that I saw.
I thought of you this afternoon, too, when I saw the ferns outside the office house unfurling, stretching out fronds and stems, now that their moment has come round yet again. How do they know to be so patient? How do they uncurl so beautifully, just when it's time?


For your next year, I wish you the flash of chestnut candles and the patience of ferns.