This One Life #02: Born on the Last Day of Autumn (or, When My Dad Almost Fainted)


December 20, 1976 was an important day in my history. It’s the day I was born, and it just so happened to be the last day of autumn. The smell of snow was in the air. Maybe this is why I’ve always had a preference for the crunching sound of leaves under my feet, or those frost-covered fall mornings. Maybe this is why fall has always felt like a rebirth to me.

Your grandmother felt sick when she woke up, wondering if perhaps she had overdone it on pizza and orange juice the night before when they were hanging out with some friends. It was her first pregnancy. But the sickness began to find rhythm and depth, and soon your grandfather was driving down Route 30, four-ways flashing, passing cars on the shoulder. I think he rather enjoyed himself.

At least until they got there. Just as I was about to make my grand entrance, the doctor clamped onto my head with a pair of forceps, and Dad started to feel light-headed.

“I think I’m going to faint,” he mumbled to a nurse as my mom bore down under the weight of a contraction. He stumbled toward a chair.

“Sit down, Mr. Smucker,” the nurse said. “Put your head between your knees and breathe.”

And so it was, that as my mother was pushing me into the world, the nurses were attending to my father in the corner. Both of our worlds were spinning. I arrived around 11:30 on that day, baptized by blood and water. I screamed my first song under the crying eyes of my mother, the pale smile of my recovering father.

Who could have imagined in that moment this life I would live, the places I would see, the dreams I would dream? Who could have imagined the quieter moments of my life that came later, fishing patiently on the banks of the Pequea Creek, or riding my bike down South New Holland Road, the walls of field corn towering up on both sides of me? Who could have named the far-off places I would visit: the bright, green Buckinghamshire countryside, the angry edge of the Indian Ocean on a Sri Lankan beach, the chaotic Turkish streets in Istanbul, or the jagged emerald coastline of Ireland?

Who can ever know what these untamed lives might hold for us?

We tell you your own birth stories every year on each of your birthdays because this is the miracle: You are here. You are You. You are among us.

Remember this, my children: everyone begins as a baby. People who take what is not theirs, people who abuse the vulnerable, terrorists, war-worshipers: even they were babies once, held close by their mothers, blinking in the light, innocent and smiling for the first time. Always remember that. Even your worst enemy was once a helpless, delicious smelling infant.

That was my beginning, in that hospital in Lancaster County, PA. That was my entrance into this “one wild and precious life.”

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This One Life #01: The Messages I Hope You Find

Photo by Harman Abiwardani via Unsplash
Photo by Harman Abiwardani via Unsplash

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver

I’ve felt a strange urgency lately to write this down for the five (almost six) of you. I don’t know why. Maybe because this is my fortieth year and I’m seeing story lines appear around my eyes and at the corners of my mouth, lines with beginnings too many years ago to remember. You won’t truly understand that feeling for a long time, the feeling that your life is slipping away silently behind you, the good with the bad. That feeling when you look in the mirror and wonder who it is you’re looking at because that older person in the mirror is definitely not you.

But getting older is a beautiful thing, if you can dig down to the heart of it, down where most of the important things are buried. One of my most earnest prayers is that you will see your fortieth year, and your fiftieth, and many more beyond that. Life is good, even when it is hard, even when it is passing. This is difficult to believe when the smoke is blowing from some recent thing brought to ruins, but there is beauty even in the ashes of life.

I don’t expect you to have much interest in my stories right now, but maybe someday, when you have children of your own or are visiting a faraway country, doing fabulous things, there will come a quiet moment. Maybe you’ll stand under a street light in the Far East, or you’ll sit at a desk looking out over Central Park, or you’ll take a black cab from Victoria Station to Chelsea. Maybe it will happen when you’re on a beach looking out over the Indian Ocean or praying as the oxygen masks drop down from the ceiling of your plane. Maybe you’ll be sitting on a damp rock in Ireland or watching dust blow through a border town. And in that moment, you’ll think of me, your dear old dad, and you’ll wonder.

Then again, maybe you’ll be living a simple life. Perhaps you’ll have come back here, or never left, this place where our ancestors have lived for the last three hundred years or so. There’s nothing wrong with that either. There’s nothing wrong with living a simple life, loving your friends and family, knowing each curve in every road by heart, watching out for your neighbors, going to work every day and doing a fine job before going home and propping up your feet. If that’s where this life leads you, right back to where you started, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The best roads usually bring you back home.

Cherish it, whatever you do. Cherish this life.

Some of these things I will tell you spring up out of nothing more than images: an unpainted fence at the corner of the driveway; an old attic door that would never quite close; a used brown bike with rusting spokes; the glimmer of monkey’s gold in a church parking lot. Sometimes the image will have to be the story.

Even the stories will not always be correct – I’ve written enough personal histories to know that when you pull on strands of facts that have become tangled up in the years, the facts start to fray at the ends. There may be things I get wrong, but this, this is the important thing to remember: the Truth is still there, hidden among the cloudy ends.

There is, of course, the chance that you will never read this. Many things could conspire to bring that about. For this reason, I suppose it is good that I have always been an optimist, always willing to write down the truth, roll it up in a tight scroll, slip it into a bottle, and cast it out onto the water.

Keep your eyes open, my children, and perhaps these small scrolls will wash up on your shore when you need them the most.

This is the story of my life.

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