The Birthday Girl (Or, Dancing With The Ghost Of A Memory That Traveled Two Different Paths)

The birthday girl, when she was 16, 29 years ago in a photo taken by me and buried in my box of memories until I pulled it out today.

The birthday girl, from when she was 16, 29 years ago in a photo taken by me and buried in my box of memories until I pulled it out today.

Today is her birthday. From both my heart and soul, I wish her nothing but happiness and joy; the cake she wants the most and the little gifts that make her know how loved she is by her family and friends.

She’s at that age today where you can joke about her still being in her 30s, but anybody who didn’t know the truth might very well believe you. She is as beautiful on this day as she was when I fell in love with her a lifetime ago.

Whenever I take a walk backwards, down the timeline of my life, it is easy for me to spot where the major intersections are. You know the ones, the places Robert Frost referred to when he wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood.” You take one, the other goes undiscovered. Then you come to the next one and you chose again, forever changing what your future could be.

I was 18 back then and Jen was 16. To my best recollection, we met at a dance — Lionel Ritchie’s “Penny Lover” was our first slow dance together, if my mind remembers it right — and for just about the next year we were inseparable. It was true love to me back then and even looking back on it now, nearly 30 years later, I can say she was one of the few people I can say I truly loved with all my captured heart.

I’ve come to believe that young love is simply the best kind of love there is. It’s new. It’s fresh. It’s exciting. It’s full of hope and promise. It’s pure. And it’s intense. Young people who fall in love talk about forever and actually believe in it, and that’s what makes it so great.

When I think of Jen, a flood of strong memories coming rushing back to me, powerful and unabashed; ghosts ready to dance with me and take me back in time.

I think of her family, so unique and yet filled with sisters who were so strong in their love for one another, they proved to the glue that held them together. I remember their home on that dead-end street in Orono, Maine. For a while, it seemed like another home to me, as well.

I remember Jen telling me once she was originally from Princeton and, at first, I thought she meant New Jersey. I remember her Orono High cheerleading uniform, and the pink footy pajamas I bought her for Christmas. I remember our long journey together to Burlington, Vt. And, I remember her prom and the pink dress she wore. I remember dancing to Bryan Adams and how she felt in my arms, like we were never going to let go of each other.

And baby, you’re all that I want
When you’re lyin’ here in my arms
I’m findin’ it hard to believe
We’re in heaven

I remember her sister Susan and Susan’s boyfriend Gary and the pool at the Ramada Inn in Bangor. I remember Pat’s Pizza. I remember Doug Flutie of Boston College playing football against Miami and watching the game of the century in her living room. I remember us leaving early and missing the play of the century, which is the reason why I never leave a sporting event anymore until the final buzzer.

I remember her pencil drawings of Opus and Bill The Cat, drawn on April 4, 1985, and the reason I remember those so well is because I just found them buried in my box of memories. I remember calling her “Jenny Bean” because it was similar to jelly bean.

And, yes, I remember waking up next to her some mornings hoping forever would be just like that.

Like I said, young love is the best kind of love their is.

I also remember breaking her heart. It wasn’t long after that I realized mine was just as broken, but by then it was too late. I think it’s fair to say that I probably shed more tears over Jen than I have anybody in my life. While on the surface that might seem silly, to me it really did solidify how much I cared for her and how stupid I was to end the relationship so prematurely. That break-up, looking back on it, sent me down a path I likely never would have gone down otherwise. It led me to doing things I’m not proud of as I tried anything to kill the pain of what I was feeling inside.

Or so it seemed back then.

Now, obviously, I realize it was a path we were both meant to travel. Our break-up led to both of us meeting new people we never would have met otherwise.

Over the years, some of those people led to me to living with roommates who put me into a situation where I ended up meeting the woman who would be my wife and the mother of my son.

Likewise, her path has brought her to her own life where she’s become a successful professional and married with a beautiful family of her own.

That last time I saw Jen was probably 12 years ago or so, in a bar in downtown Dover, New Hampshire. It was just a chance meeting that included two quick glances — John? Jen? — and a quick conversation that I wish could have lasted longer.

Thankfully, through the magic of Facebook, she pops up from time-to-time with a photo or a thought, or a computer-generated reminder that it’s her birthday. Sometimes, when that happens, the ghosts of yesterday will come back to dance with me once again.

Happy birthday, Jen.

I truly hope your path has been everything you ever dreamed it would be.

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