Jonny McCambridge: Birthdays – easier for the young than the old

The occasion led to much fuss and commotion within our household. A simple fiver in a card just won’t cut it the way it did when I was a kid.

To be fair, the work was almost exclusively undertaken by my wife, with my role relegated to that of blowing up brightly coloured balloons.

Even in this I proved more hindrance than help by inflating several of the orbs so far that they burst before my son had even stirred from his bed.

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When he did wake, the house was suitably decorated, the presents and cards had been laid out, and the kitchen table heaved under the weight of confectionary, crisps and cake.

This year his birthday fell on a school day; so, after a quick examination of his new computer games and bike he was packed off to class with the promise of a party later.

Then I had to go to work. As I drove to Belfast my mind was full of thoughts of my son, of how fast the years have passed, of a day in the Ulster Hospital eight years ago when the lives of my wife and I changed suddenly in a way that we could not then understand.

While it is ultimately a celebration, I always feel there is a slight poignancy about a birthday, a marking of time that can never be recovered. He will never be seven again. The relentless, grinding wheel just keeps inching forward.

The drive passed easily and soon I had reached the city. I was easing myself into the working day when I received a phone call which altered my plans. There was a job in Craigavon which I needed to cover. I drove towards the motorway and headed west. The weather was benign and the traffic light. I was enjoying the journey and looking forward to the celebration later in the day.

Then, a few miles from Craigavon, something startling occurred. I will do my best to relate the facts here although, I concede, the events are still fuzzy in my head. Sometimes, when an event occurs quickly right in front of your eyes, it can still be difficult to relate it entirely accurately, such is the frailty of human memory.

I pulled into the fast lane to pass some slower vehicles. I know that I was not travelling at high speed because there was a van and two lorries in the right-hand lane in front.

Next, I saw one of the lorries suddenly move left towards the hard shoulder. I had a sense that the other lorry was wobbling on the road and began to slow down. Then the van, which was directly ahead of me and obscuring my vision, pulled sharply to the left and I could see why.

Just yards in front of my car, on the surface of the fast lane of the M1 motorway, lay a huge lorry tyre and a sizeable chunk of what seemed to be a bumper. I cannot say that I had any thought at this moment other than an instinct that it would be impossible for me to stop in time.

A quick glance in the rear-view mirror revealed the left lane (mercifully) to be empty and I was able to swerve around the objects which were strewn on the carriageway.

I drove on to do the job I had been assigned. It was only when I parked my car that I noticed that my hands were shaking.

The rest of the working day passed quietly. Then I drove home.

When I got there, my son was playing joyfully in the garden with his two beloved cousins and I could see the breathless excitement in his features. He stopped to give me the briefest of cuddles before he ran off.

It was a fine and sunny afternoon, so I took a seat in the back yard. When I was asked how my day at work had gone, I just smiled and said ‘fine’.

Perhaps my mind was still a little troubled because I decided to practise a mindfulness technique which has helped me find peace in the past, bringing myself into the moment, studying my surroundings to remove all other thoughts and worries.

I concentrated on the rose bush in the garden. In every previous year it has bloomed brilliantly on my son’s birthday, a botanical recognition of the occasion. But this year, perhaps because of the cooler weather, it remained barren. I looked closer and saw that the buds were starting to emerge, just a promise of the fierce pink colour beginning to show.

But mostly I watched my son and the joy in his expression as he moved around. At one point he just lay on the thick grass with his hands behind his head. I was struck with the certainty that he was just enjoying that moment, not thinking about what had gone before or may still be to come, not worrying about chance or failure or circumstance.

Then we moved on to the party. The usual excitement such an event would bring was magnified because the children were being permitted into an indoor play facility for the first time in more than a year.

I watched my son interact confidently with the other children and noticed that he seemed to be one of the loudest in the group. I thought of earlier parties where he clung to mine or mummy’s leg and refused to join in the games.

After the candles had been blown out and the children were running around wildly, I found a quiet spot in a corner and sat down. I was exhausted after a gruelling day.

A little girl took the chair beside me.

She said: ‘Thank you for inviting me to James’s party.’

I was touched by the generosity and politeness of the remark and considered the amazing ability of children to bring light and nourishment to a tired and cynical mind. I looked at the little girl and thought that perhaps she was using her youthful intuition, she had realised that I was weary and had decided to bring comfort.

I smiled as she stared hard at me.

Then she said: ‘Are you James’s grandfather?’

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Alistair Bushe