Over Pappy 23, A Private Birthday Story

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This originally appeared in Brain World Magazine in 2014, but it’s not available online and a recent Twitter thread made me realize how important it was to share this story. Thank you!

For the first three years of marriage, I missed Jaclyn’s birthday, never making her breakfast, never kissing her forehead, never buying her a gift and never even whispering those important must-be-heard words: “happy birthday.” When we were dating, I remembered her birthday at the last second and bought half-assed gifts at Walgreens just before they closed.

  Before you write me off as an unthoughtful jerk, there’s something you should know. I have a mild Traumatic Brain Injury. Sometimes, in parking lots, I drive lost in circles. I occasionally walk into rooms without remembering why I went there. Once, I drove across two counties looking for the dentist, a destination I had been to six times in the past two years. 

I suffered this very mild head injury while serving in Iraq and can honestly say that I’m highly functional compared to many other veterans, retired NFL players and car wreck victims. With that said, I could not let this leftover war injury hurt the woman I love.

I call TBI my grey cloud. It hovers over my personal memories, zapping significant high school friends, directions, personal lunches and the grocery store list. But, Jaclyn is much more important than the sack of potatoes I forgot in the fall of 2011.

To overcome the grey cloud deleting her birthday, I said the date out loud every day for three months. Though my big yellow cat looked at me as if I needed canned tuna therapy, this cognitive process ingrained her birthday in my brain. 

Remembering the date was not enough, however. I needed to make a splash with awesome presents. I wrote gift ideas on yellow sticky notes, reinforcing and building other memories around the day. I must have had 50 notes stuck to invoices and random notebook pages, all hidden in places she could not find them.

My brain fortunately allowed me to remember Jaclyn loves headbands and quirky jewelry selection. She has the diamonds and pearls, but never wears them. Rather, Jaclyn loves handmade works from individual craftsman, especially jewelers she considers artists. I shopped the local stores, looking for the perfect necklace, and purchased a perfectly cut topaz on a silver necklace. I picked up a few headbands that Punky Brewster would have worn.

I bought a few other gifts, including flowers, chocolates and a signed travel book, wrapping them in holiday paper—the detail I forgot, special birthday paper, Darn! 

Gift paper aside, I was ready.

When she arrived home from work, probably wondering if I had remembered her birthday, our wedding song, “All the Way,” played and her gifts neatly displayed on a perfectly made bed.

I was standing in the doorway wearing my best ascot—she adores me in ascots.

“Happy Birthday, baby,” I said, trying to be cavalier, leaning against the wall, puffing my chest out.

She dropped her purse and rushed to me, wrapping her arms around my chest. “You remembered,” she said.

I remembered.

I walked her to the bed.

Jaclyn jumped up and down like a little girl and said, “are those for me?”

She tore into the presents one by one.

“Oh, headbands. How did you know? They’re amazing,” she said.

When she opened the necklace, Jaclyn was breathless. Aside from her wedding ring, it was the most expensive gift I’ve ever purchased. “I just don’t know what to say, Freddie. It’s amazing. Can I wear it now?”

“Yes! But, we only have 30 minutes before the driver gets here,” I said.

“A driver?” she asked.

“Yes, but where we are going is a surprise,” I said.

Inside the car, sparkling Italian white wine chilled on ice. Our destination was one of the best restaurants in the South — the Holly Hill Inn in Midway, Kentucky, an hour drive from our townhouse. We always talked about going there one day and when we arrived, Jaclyn was thrilled, salivating even, for the wonderful food awaiting us.

Inside the old Southern mansion, candlelight flickered and the fire crackled. No brain injury could take this moment away: Her beautiful olive skin glowed. Her brown eyes shimmered. She was absolutely radiant.

The food was local-ingredient Southern cooking with French undertones. She savored the lamb, and I tore into a rosemary- and sage-rubbed pork loin. We split a chocolate truffle and raspberry butter cake, pairing it with a remarkable 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon whiskey that reminds me of Jaclyn’s birthday every time I’ve tasted it since.

Minus the wrapping paper, the entire evening was perfect in every way.

As we walked back to the car, birds were chirping, and I could even smell nearby blooming flowers. I brushed Jaclyn’s hair away from her ear and whispered, “Happy Birthday. I love you.”

Finally, I had given her an amazing day, just as she’s always deserved.

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