May 22, 2014 was a grand day in the Armstrong family. My son turned twenty-one years old. He is my first born child and only son. He made reservations for Baby Blues BBQ Restaurant in Philadelphia, PA. It is walking distance from Drexel University where he’s a third-year communications major. We were psyched. He had six of his buddies with huge appetites joining us for dinner. I knew not to leave home without my American Express card.
My heart was full of pride and love because my young man is growing up to be a caring man with a great work ethic. I suffered the nearly five hour drive from Washington, DC to the City of Brotherly Love, double the normal drive time thanks to two traffic accidents, construction just north of Baltimore, sporadic rain, and Memorial Day traffic. I couldn’t wait to hug my young man. He’s exceeding my dreams.
And the dreams of his paternal grandmother, God rest her immortal soul. Soon after I graduated from West Point in the early ’80s, she began requesting grandchildren, even during periods when I wasn’t even dating. Eventually I married and divorced; nonetheless, both of my children became her very own. She spent more time with them than I did as a divorced father.
On the afternoon of my son’s birthday, my mobile phone rang. His handsome face popped up on the screen. I immediately joked that he was calling to inform me that the guest list for the restaurant was expanding yet again.
“Dad, I have bad news,” he replied.
“Uncle Charles died?” I guessed, holding my breath. He is my late-father’s nearly ninety year old surviving sibling. He’s a member of the Greatest Generation who fought as an Army enlisted man in World War II and as an Army lieutenant in Korea where he lost a leg in battle.
“They found Cousin Mike dead.”
Shock stunned me, rendering me utterly breathless.
My cousin and I grew up more like brothers than cousins. He attended a military boarding school through twelfth grade, and then I attended the nation’s largest military high school. He got accepted to West Point, choosing instead to attend Johns Hopkins University. He eventually graduated, attended medical school, and earned a commission as a medical doctor and Army officer. I became the second in the family to earn an appointment to West Point and upon graduation, was commissioned a combat arms officer in the US Army. He blazed the trail.
After the Army, he and I regularly played tennis. He was a very fit retired colonel who had not an ounce of fat on his body. When police found him dead apparently of natural causes in his home, he was fifty-six years and eleven months old, two years older than I am.
It was good fortune to be around so much youth at my son’s birthday dinner in Philly. All seven young men were college juniors at various universities. Their faces lit up with so much promise and life. They distracted me from the closeness of the Grim Reaper.
Tomorrow is never promised, but with the death of my closest relative (other than my two children), I felt mortality’s proximity. The wretched breath of the Grim Reaper burned against the back of my neck.
I arrived home in DC around 3am. With God as my witness before I closed my eyes to sleep, despite a shaken heart, I renewed my vow to live again. The choice to live is more than deciding to wake up in the mornings, grab a bowl of cereal, and slog through the day in mere existence.
I choose to live on my terms. I seek joy in the smallest of chores because we only control our actions and our attitudes.
I am happy being alive!!!
That is my choice.