“Did you have a wonderful time?” my friend Ria asked.
“A wonderful time might be overstating it,“ I replied.
I had visited my son, Stephen, in Charleston, South Carolina for my birthday. It was a long flight; I changed planes twice. I arrived on Saturday at midnight.
The flight was uneventful for the most part. I experienced the new x-ray machines at security. Everyone had to go through them and everyone I saw got patted down as well. For some reason they only found it necessary to pat my left leg. Along the way most people were pleasant. I find as I age that it makes a difference to be smiled at.
Sunday morning I helped prepare for a Sunday afternoon party my son and his wife, Michelle, had planned for my birthday, (which was not until Tuesday.) Steve remembered the Sunday lunches of his childhood that my aunt Clare hosted every week . There was always a mix of interesting people — artists, writers, neighbors, children, dogs and anybody my aunt happened to run into the week before. There was usually a leg of lamb which one of the gentlemen guests presided over carving. There was always plenty to drink.
For my (Steve’s) party I made a salad and roasted a leg of lamb. There were other dishes — chicken with olives, roasted root vegetables, beets with blue cheese — already cooked the day before by Michelle and her friend. Steve and Michelle had never, in almost 10 years of marriage, given a party. They had a lot to learn quickly. Dishes, glasses, napkins, chairs had to be arranged. Michelle wanted a sit down dinner; Steve wanted a buffet dinner. Guests were to arrive in one hour. Steve declared that everyone was making too much fuss. There was confusion and slightly raised voices, but when the first guests arrived it looked as if they were expected.
The party was a success. I had a good time. I talked to Suellen Hawkins Reiss, a psychotherapist and her husband Jonathan Reiss, a photographer and advisor about happiness. His business card says, “Methods for Clarity and Awareness.” He tried to explain some important points about meditation. I told him that I find meditation difficult; I either think about something (not allowed) or go to sleep. Jonathan explained that, if I allowed my mind to roam freely, I would eventually achieve thinking about nothing. I really mean to try this sometime, but I put it off because I really enjoy thinking.
I talked to two young, tall, handsome black men. One was a biologist with whom I had a lot in common because we had both worked (at different times) at Emory University on the cell biology of the gut. The other was a dentist. I got some good dental advice from him. I talked to Steve’s friend Mike. I knew Mike from past visits and enjoy talking to him — he is quick and funny. He is recovering from a bad motorcycle accident , has a broken leg and was rather subdued on this occasion.
And I talked to Paulo. Paulo is an enigmatic Italian who talks a lot. He says little about himself, but Michelle told me that he used to be a teacher at an art school and that he is a photographer. Sometimes months go by, she told me, that they don’t see him because he becomes depressed and stays in his tiny apartment. Stevie showed me a photograph by Paulo of the hands of a black man with ornate rings on every finger. He cautioned me not to let Paulo know I had seen the photograph because he had forbidden Stevie from showing it to me. Paulo makes a living now as a gardener for rich people.
Steve enjoyed the party. He said his criterion for issuing invitations was that only smart people would be invited. It worked well.
Michelle stayed in the kitchen most of the time with a friend from her work.
After the party was over Stevie, Paulo and I took a long walk through the streets of Charleston around the University.
There were ante-bellum houses, churches, grave yards and government buildings of historical interest; Paulo told us about every one of them. His accent was heavy and it was an effort to understand him. He had a lot to say about the old jail which is now being converted into art studios for students. He feels it should remain a monument to the people who had been imprisoned there. When he finally said he had to go home to his cat (Lucy) to feed her the bits of roast lamb we had given him I was quite tired, both from walking and from concentrating on what Paulo was telling us.
On Monday Steve, Michelle and I went to the coffee shop where Stevie goes every morning (before he goes to work) to study mathematics and quantum mechanics. I must explain that Steve is a doctor, but he went to medical school late. First he got a Ph. D. in math, and math is his true love. He fills many note books with mysterious equations and notes. Someday he may publish, but first, he says, he must have results.
There was tension in the air. Michelle suddenly left to visit some friends. Steve and I talked, he fidgeted, talked to people in the coffee shop and I read the New York Times. Michelle came back; I mentioned a need for the loo. Michelle said the one in the coffee shop was undesirable and suggested we go across the street to a more elegant one in an upmarket mall. When I emerged from the marble tiled rest room I saw Michelle in a jewelry store across the hall. I joined her there and she bought both of us lovely earrings. I was surprised because she is the antithesis of an impulse spender.
In the afternoon Steve and Michelle went to their separate gyms to workout. I napped, read and waited for the event of the evening, dinner out. There had been some problems connected with the dinner. No place had been booked or decided on. Steve said he didn’t want to spend a lot of money. We walked to a place on the waterfront that had good oysters and otherwise mediocre food. Steve was in a terribly bad mood and Michelle looked glum. I was puzzled and unhappy. After a while Steve said it was not my fault; there were problems.
I slept badly, and the next morning Michelle went to work and Steve, who had the day off went to the coffee shop to do math. It was my 79th birthday.
In the afternoon Steve and I went to Folly Beach. The day was warm and sunny. We walked along the smooth, empty beach to a point where we could see a lighthouse. There were palm trees and bleached remains of other trees jutting out of the sand.
We picked up shells and found the sarcophagus of a little bird.
We saw some well camouflaged live birds.
We talked quietly about his troubles — the sort of troubles so many (if not all) people have in mid-life. It was a good walk, a good talk.
When we got home we were both tired. No dinner had been organized for that evening, but Steve and I snacked on party left-overs and talked well into the night about science, math, the origin of life and quantum mechanics. For many years he has explained quantum mechanics to me; perhaps someday I’ll know what it’s about. It was comforting to have it explained once again. Next he told me about Collatz’ Conjecture: this definition is from Wikipedia.
Take any natural number n. If n is even, divide it by 2 to get n / 2, if n is odd multiply it by 3 and add 1 to obtain 3n + 1. Repeat the process (which has been called “Half Or Triple Plus One”, or HOTPO indefinitely. The conjecture is that no matter what number you start with, you will always eventually reach 1.
Steve said that all mathematicians (including himself) have spent a few weeks trying to prove this and then given up to work on something more important. He said “A really obnoxious (expletive deleted), Paul Erdos, said ’it is beyond present day mathematics’”
I went to bed feeling I had reconnected with my brilliant, erratic, funny and kind son. I believe he and Michelle will resume a comfortable loving life together.